Flipping fantastic

The Mermaid breaks China box office record – and does well in US too

Paris Fashion Week - Chanel Outside Arrivals

Fish out of water: newcomer Lin Yun plays the mermaid in hit movie

What do you get when you put together a film script that pits property development against environmental destruction, and then adds a dose of comedy? China’s highest grossing blockbuster The Mermaid.

Directed by actor-filmmaker Stephen Chow, The Mermaid has officially broken box office records (we first highlighted this possibility in WiC313). As of the end of last week, it had earned Rmb3 billion ($450 million) in ticket sales, surpassing the previous record holder Monster Hunt ($381 million). The film’s popularity even helped Chinese cinemas overtake the US market in monthly revenues for only the second time in February, official data showed this week.

The film tells the story of a billionaire playboy who buys a dolphin reserve with the intention of converting it into flashy real estate. To protect the aquatic habitat, a beautiful mermaid plots to seduce and assassinate him. But her plan derails when she finds herself falling in love.

Released with English subtitles in only a handful of theatres in the North American market, the movie also did very well there, with more than $1 million in box office receipts in its opening weekend. At $29,000 per screen, that is the biggest opening for a Chinese-made film in a decade and the strong results seem to have caught distributor Sony Pictures by surprise. According to film critic Simon Abrams, most of Sony’s executives weren’t even aware that the company was releasing The Mermaid and there was no promotion whatsoever. “Sony didn’t expect it to interest many people, outside of Chinese or Chinese-American film fans,” Abrams reports.

At first glance, it certainly doesn’t seem like the film would have much international appeal. The stars, which include actor Deng Chao (as the billionaire) and newcomer Lin Yun (as the mermaid) are largely unknown to US audiences. Chow’s signature slapstick humour doesn’t always work outside China, either. While previous works like Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004) performed well locally, they failed to strike a chord with overseas audiences (see WiC182). But Abrams says The Mermaid crosses cultural boundaries. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t like subtitles. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the director. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen a Chinese movie in your life. It will make you laugh. Guaranteed,” he wrote on Rogerebert.com

Similarly, GQ magazine called The Mermaid the “wildest, batshit blockbuster movie”, while a review in the New York Times praises a scene in which Liu tries to convince two police officers that he was kidnapped by a mermaid as “probably the funniest thing that’ll play on a screen this year.”

Other film fans think that the environmental message has given The Mermaid a universal theme. “What I most wanted to depict wasn’t a love story, but man’s destruction of the environment,” Chow told Phoenix TV.

The strong box office take now puts Sony in an awkward position, with criticism of the studio’s decision to restrict it to so few screens in the American market. Worse, there are even conspiracy theories in China that Japan’s Sony didn’t want to see the film succeed because it didn’t invest any money in it…

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