LOS ANGELES — Humor isn’t supposed to travel well internationally, but apparently no one told that to Stephen Chow, the Hong Kong director behind a hilarious Chinese import that has been taking American moviegoers by storm.
While “Deadpool” retained the box-office title for the third straight weekend, Chow’s “The Mermaid,” which centers on a beautiful mermaid sent to kill an environment-destroying industrialist, continued to be the pound-for-pound champion. The Chinese film has brought in the highest per-theater average of any movie in North America for two straight weeks. Despite scant domestic marketing and no awards-season buzz, the Mandarin-language comedy whose original title is “Mei Ren Yu” is playing well to audiences not known for their tolerance for subtitles.
“The Mermaid,” which recently became the highest-grossing film ever in China, made a little more than $700,000 last weekend, despite playing in just 77 domestic theaters. It ranked No. 22 at the box office, sandwiched between “Spotlight” and “Room,” which played on 685 and 530 screens, respectively — and were nominated for multiple Oscars. The film has reeled in more than $2 million over its two weeks playing in the U.S. To put that in perspective, “Monster Hunt,” the film “The Mermaid” displaced at the top of China’s box-office rankings, made about $33,000 total across 45 screens when it came to America last month.
Certainly, a good amount of “The Mermaid’s” windfall came from Mandarin-speaking audiences — a safe assumption given the geographic distribution of the theaters it played in — but you don’t get to $2 million without English speakers seeing the film. International Business Times saw the movie last weekend in a fairly packed West LA theater that seemed to have about three Mandarin speakers for every person following along in English. And while there were jokes that landed at different times for listeners and subtitle-readers — one reason many comedies don’t work elsewhere — everyone was paying rapt attention throughout.
Why did “The Mermaid” make such a big splash abroad? Three reasons stand out:
1. Most of the best gags are visual. Taiwainese pop star Show Luo, who played an octopus-man who can’t always keep his tentacles in his pants, seemed to draw out the deepest belly laughs. His facial expressions alone sold several scenes — which didn’t require the non-Mandarin speakers to have to read fast to catch up to the joke. There’s a decently funny poop bit, which translates in any language. And lead actor Deng Chao hits near-Chris Farley levels of physical comedy in a scene where he tries to convince skeptical police officers that he was kidnapped by a mermaid. “The Mermaid” won’t have tons of memorable quotes, but the New York Times called that Deng scene “probably the funniest thing that’ll play on a screen this year,” and it’s hard to disagree. There just weren’t a lot of jokes that required more than a line or two of reading to get, and that worked.
2. It has a true blockbuster feel. The movie’s main set, the merpeople habitat, was custom built inside of an empty glass factory in the industrial city of Shenzhen, and the spare-little-expense production value shows throughout. The costumes look expensive. The 3D elements enhance the story, and aren’t just 3D for 3D’s sake. The actors, many of whom are A-listers in China and Hong Kong, don’t mail it in — like so many big stars do here when cast in comedies. There’s a reason it dominated in China.
3. It can laugh at itself without undermining the message. Academy voters tend to like somewhat preachy films, but most Americans use a trip to the theater as a way to get away from the very real stresses in their lives and escape to a fantasy world that includes dinosaurs, droids or Tyrese. “The Mermaid” is all about saving the oceans, but it also has people in jet packs, underwater 3D action scenes and kitschy musical interludes. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had while being concerned about the destruction of our coral reefs.
To a certain extent, there might be a little perverse pride for Hollywood, which gave Al Gore an Academy Award for “An Inconvenient Truth” nine years ago, seeing a Chinese movie with massive popular appeal delivering an unapologetic pro-environment message. But that’s not why the movie got such a positive reception from the general audience. It’s just a really entertaining way to spend an hour and a half — subtitles be damned.