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Lin Yun receives her, uh, swimming orders in "The Mermaid."

Big movies tend to come out in the Far East around Chinese New Year, and the recent festivities included the likes of Kung Fu Panda 3. However, that movie and everything else got swamped by The Mermaid, an action-comedy that became the biggest box-office hit in Chinese history four days ago. When I caught it at AMC Grapevine Mills where it’s now playing, I thought it was the funniest movie about the environment I’ve ever seen. Usually when comedians try to convey a serious message in a movie, it’s death. This, on the other hand, is by Stephen Chow, who directed Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, and he finds a way to stay on point while delivering laughs.

The movie centers on an abandoned fishing vessel in a protected gulf where the world’s last population of mermaids lives in secret, having been driven there by hunting and human development. When a billionaire named Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) announces his plan to conduct a reclamation project there — and plant sonar that will drive out the wildlife — the mermaids decide to strike back by having a specially trained mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun) disguise herself as a human and assassinate him. She falls in love with him instead after realizing that he’s not such a bad guy.

Having a mermaid walk on land is the first hurdle for the filmmakers. Of course, Disney’s The Little Mermaid used a magic spell, while Ron Howard’s Splash solved the problem by having the mermaid’s fish tail turn into human legs when she dried out on land. Not here; Shan instead has been trained to walk on her tail. As far as I can tell, Lin Yun is not related to me, but she is a newcomer who was cast after a nationwide talent search for the role. She interprets this by walking stiffly in bulky clothes that completely cover the lower half of her body. As in other Chow movies, the CGI starts off as cheesy so that we can be surprised when the really good CGI kicks in later.

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Another way this is typical Chow is the relentless silliness on display. Early on, we get a fat guy dressing up as a mermaid trying to charge gullible tourists to see him. A great slapstick scene ensues when Shan tries to assassinate Liu Xuan, her efforts coming to grief as she only hurts herself while trying to poison or stab him. More of the same comes when Shan’s half-man, half-octopus friend (Show Luo) tries to finish the job and finds himself having to sacrifice his tentacles to some Japanese teppanyaki chefs to maintain his cover. Liu Xuan is himself hilariously insecure for a wealthy entrepreneur, wearing a fake mustache and hiring a band to stand in his living room all day and play a song about how invincible and lonely he is. The song gets another airing later when he and Shan go on a date at a carnival and wind up singing it in such a loud and dramatic way that it would embarrass people who were more conscious of themselves.

It should be an almighty jolt when the real villain of the piece, Liu Xuan’s business partner and ex-girlfriend (Zhang Yuqi), finds out where the merpeople are and send in mercenaries with machine guns to exterminate them. The result is so bloody that you just know that Chow watched The Cove, Louie Psihoyos’ documentary from 2009 about Japanese dolphin-killing practices. In the hands of most filmmakers, this would either come off so frivolously that it would turn off the viewers or so grimly that it killed off the comedy. In Chow’s hands, somehow neither thing happens. The carnage is terrible, but Shan and Liu Xuan save enough of the colony to give us hope for the future, and the billionaire becomes an environmental philanthropist who publicly echoes Shan’s sentiment that his wealth won’t count for much if human beings make the Earth unlivable.

I’m not sure what this bodes for future movies. It seems to me that only a truly great comic filmmaker like Chow could carry off this movie’s balance of wackiness and truth. However, after seeing so many films about the subject take such a dire tone, I can’t tell you how grateful I am that The Mermaid does what it does, showing that you can convey a message about protecting nature while also reducing an audience to paroxysms of laughter, like when Liu Xuan tries to report the mermaids to the police and receives about the response you’d expect.

When you say “half-man, half-fish,” you mean this, right?

The movie made close to $1 million in America on its opening weekend despite having virtually no publicity behind it. The auditorium showing this at AMC Grapevine Mills certainly was packed with Chinese people, but you don’t have to speak a word of Mandarin to get a lot of laughs from this.

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    • There are in fact two sets of subtitles, one in English and the other (I think) in Cantonese. The unfamiliarity of this setup may give some trouble, though I managed OK.

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