Under the Sea, Under the Censors: The Mainland Success of Stephen Chow

By Shelly KraicerMay 6, 2016

Under the Sea, Under the Censors: The Mainland Success of Stephen Chow
THE EXPLOSIVELY EXPANDING Chinese film industry breaks records every few weeks. Still, Stephen Chow’s new comedy The Mermaid (Mei ren yu 美人魚) is in a class of its own: it has quickly become the highest earning Chinese film in history, at least for now. It’s a genuine phenomenon, but there is much more to this film than its raw commercial success. To find out why, we need to first take a look at the cultural force that is Stephen Chow.

Stephen Chow (周星馳, in Mandarin Zhou Xingchi; in Cantonese, Chiau Sing-chi) is probably Hong Kong and China’s most successful and popular filmmaker. I say Hong Kong and China because, like almost every successful veteran of the Hong Kong movie industry, he has retooled himself for the enormous Mainland Chinese film market. His brilliant success during the most recent (and, it seems, final) “Golden Age” of Cantonese cinema saw him starring in hit after hit from the late 1980s — first as the fast-talking leading man of Cantonese comedy’s most influential and popular directors (Jeffrey Lau, Johnnie To, Wong Jing, Lee Lik-chi), then from the mid-1990s on, as director, producer, and star of his own vehicles. Chow was the comedy king of Hong Kong for at least a decade and a half, and he defined a particular kind of comic-heroic male lead in Hong Kong’s public imaginary after the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, during the period of the region’s transition from British colony to Special Autonomous Region under Chinese sovereignty.

Chow’s persona has spanned seemingly incommensurable extremes. On film, he plays both everyman and god — the little guy and the Emperor-King — often transitioning from the former to the latter in the course of a single film. As everyman, Chow positions himself as a subaltern postcolonial subject who leverages his practical intelligence to overcome his origins. Sometimes his character goes so far as to assert mythic, godlike powers, borrowing elements from traditional Chinese folk mythology and opera to invent a superhero for today’s HKSAR.

His method, if one can call it that, features what in Cantonese is called mo lei tau (無厘頭), a high-speed style of specifically Cantonese verbal humor that mixes dexterous wordplay, nonsensical juxtapositions, and allusive punning to create instantly memorable phrases to startling comic and subversive effect. Chow’s mo lei tau humor has been wildly popular in Hong Kong, and his defiantly contradictory persona has offered many Hong Kongers a self-image with which they readily have identified.


During and after the shocks of the Joint Declaration; the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen crisis; and Hong Kong’s 1997 “return to the motherland,” Hong Kong’s image of its own future underwent radical changes. Self-confidence was replaced with uncertainty and anxiety. The relaxed, creative, and almost insouciant way in which most Hong Kongers had negotiated and inhabited their “hybrid” colonial-Chinese identities — neither completely British colonial subjects, nor simply Chinese, nor exactly “overseas Chinese” — was put under intense pressure. For most Hong Kongers, a choice between national identities was not necessary: they could creatively adopt a malleable blend of self-defining characteristics as changing circumstances required. The playful hybridity of Cantonese language cinema in its late Golden Age reflected this flexibility in a fundamental way. But the nationalistic central Chinese government increasingly insisted on redefining Hong Kongers’ identity as thoroughly and exclusively Chinese, threatening to shatter the uneasy and highly productive balance that many Hong Kongers had negotiated between the various aspects of their identities. This crisis of postcolonial identity forced Hong Kong stars like Chow and Jackie Chan — both of whom, through their art, offered Hong Kong people essential models of identification and self-definition — to rebrand, as it were. Chan took the mainland road, and reinvented himself as a Chinese “patriot.” He ridiculed his fellow Hong Kongers’ addiction to messy democratic processes, aligning himself with one-dimensional, Beijing-mandated images of Chinese power. This worked in a certain way: although Chan’s box office and cultural appeal in Hong Kong collapsed, his position in the newly emerging mainland film market was stabilized.

Stephen Chow’s post-1997 career has been more complicated, as he paved an ambivalent path through the politically treacherous waters of national and local identities. His films have always exuded a sense of cultural responsibility, and if he was to continue to be a creator, a mediator, and a signpost of what it means to be a Chinese person and a Hong Konger, what was that to mean for his films?

By one purely objective measure, Chow has been mainland-izing (a term that works better in Chinese: 大陆化 dalu-hua). The language of his films has been steadily changing from Cantonese (through Shaolin Soccer [2001]) to a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin (Kung Fu Hustle [2004]). His 2008 film CJ7 was filmed largely in Mandarin but released in Hong Kong and North America in a Cantonese dub, while Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013), was shot and released in Mandarin. These linguistic distinctions are not hard and fast: Hong Kong films have often been released simultaneously in Mandarin and Cantonese versions, depending on which market (Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Singapore) they are intended for. But the settings of his films have also been trending toward China: Shaolin Soccer was partly shot in mainland locations that aped Hong Kong; Kung Fu Hustle was set in a fictional southern Chinese, Cantonese-speaking town in the Hong Kong/Guangzhou cultural zone; and Journey to the West was located in a mythic Chinese mainland, a shared imaginary space of both Hong Kong and mainland Chinese culture. Meanwhile, Chow’s subjects have become steadily delocalized (if not globalized), from the specific parodies of local Hong Kong culture of his earlier work, to Cantonese historical culture (Kung Fu Hustle) and the pan-Chinese heritage of Journey to the West, which was based on a Ming dynasty novel set during the Tang.

These films reflect a gradually changing orientation toward local and national tensions. We can see Chow working with ways to situate his audiences — as the market dictates — sometimes as inheritors of specifically southern Chinese/Cantonese culture, other times as comfortable descendants of mainstream Chinese history. It’s a tricky terrain that Chow has been dancing over with élan and continued popular success. His films are not didactic (for that, see Jackie Chan lecturing his Hong Kong and Chinese audiences on how they are now part of one harmoniously disciplined Chinese nation). They do their cultural work far more subtly, offering shifting, nuanced frameworks for Chinese and Hong Kong audiences to feel their way toward sometimes traditional, sometimes tweaked, sometimes reconceptualized (most of the time all three) versions of who they are and where they stand in the matrix of Chinese history and culture.


So why has Stephen Chow turned to a film about an imaginary mermaid and her mer-people sea friends? The Mermaid is still dominating Chinese theaters and reportedly doing well in limited North American release. It is conceived as a fantastical children’s fairy tale, grafted onto an obvious parable that warns of environmental destruction. A community of mer-people lives in “Green Gulf,” a dolphin sanctuary on China’s southern coast. This sanctuary is threatened when a rapacious mainland Chinese nouveau riche billionaire, Liu Xuan (mainland comedy star Deng Chao), outbid slightly older money (fuerdai, or, second generation wealthy) Ruolan (previous Chow collaborator Kitty Zhang) and Uncle Rich (Hong Kong Golden Age director Tsui Hark) and purchased it for redevelopment. (“Redevelopment” being the usual euphemism for major assaults on the environment.) As competitive capital will always find a way to resolve itself into its natural monopolistic alliance, Liu Xuan and Ruolan partner up and hire evil Western scientist “George” (Ivan Kotik) to use his death-ray sonar to kill the dolphins (and incidentally other sea creatures) in Green Gulf.

Presumably eager to serve capital, Chinese officials rescind their protection order and grant our well-connected capitalists permission to exploit Green Gulf unencumbered. But not all the sea creatures take this attack on their reserve passively. As young mer-people are dying, immured in giant water tanks with their skin rotting away, their leader — a wise elderly matriarch and Brother Eight, her octopus-like second-in-command (Taiwanese pop star, Show Luo) — decide to take action. They mobilize a charismatic young mermaid Shanshan (newcomer Lin Yun, or “Jelly Lin” in the English credits) to seduce Liu Xuan, a known womanizer, and assassinate him: a “honey trap” as they so aptly put it. But, as in all such fairy tales, things don’t progress as expected. As Shanshan spends time with Liu Xuan, her warmth begins to connect with his inner child and innate decency. Liu Xuan was, it turns out, born into a poor family, and fuerdai Ruolan’s contempt for his “low life” background provides the film with a jolt of class hatred. His grotesquely ostentatious mannerisms, parodying China’s money-obsessed culture, haven’t completely extinguished his authentic, old-fashioned moral code. Ruolan’s team, however, totally committed to ruthless extermination and exploitation, launches a final, all-out attack on the mer-people, with Shanshan and Liu Xuan newly united as their possible saviors.

The film looks at once ultra cheap and hugely expensive: Chow manages to preserve a homespun, craft-based look while simultaneously giving spectacle-hungry audiences the dazzle they need to feel that their ticket money was well spent. The film’s long prologue — an absurdist echt-Chow sequence depicting a huckster’s cut-rate “Museum Of World Exotic Animals” (pathetic displays of lizards and dried fish posing as sea monsters) — is actually a lovingly satirical and nostalgic tribute to Chow’s Hong Kong cinema period, when pre-CGI, modest budget films were once enough to charm audiences. No longer: This small-scale cinema parody is now merely a grotesque sideshow to The Mermaid’s main event. Production design offers spectacularly lurid, garishly colored shots, both on dry luxury-land and in the watery Green Gulf scenes. Even the CGI on display manages to be both impressive and cheesy. The mer-people’s lair, a hollowed out freighter, is a shabby space, decorated with little more than a couple of huge suspended cloth water slides. This is a far cry from Chow’s expensively conceived and visually dazzling water monster town from Journey to the West. On the other hand, the depiction of the mer-people’s fishy lower bodies (and Brother Eight’s lifelike octopus extremities) is superbly conceived and crafted, with a subtle combination of fairy tale whimsy and uncanny naturalism. And a sequence in which the matriarch conjures up immense shimmering water images to illustrate her community’s history is simply gorgeous. Chow again seems to be able to have it both ways: his persona, his style, his film design, everything about him seems intended to bring opposites together, to integrate incommensurables, and to bridge contradictions — not by annihilating or denying them, but by creating a preexisting sense of comic absurdity that shatters audiences’ preconceptions about what is possible and impossible, what “fits” and what doesn’t. It all fits in Chow’s cinematic imagination.

Indeed, The Mermaid offers much more than a cautionary tale warning audiences of the terrible cost of rampant commercial development in China (although this is undoubtedly prominent — the film even opens with video images of pollution around the world, just so we don’t miss it). But there is another way to read it. We have, on the one hand, an isolated community of fish-people near the sea. They are hybrids: neither completely human, nor completely fish, they are a happy combination of both. They are comfortable with their seemingly contradictory natures until external disturbances threaten their utopic microcosm. This utopia even happens to be on China’s southern coast, a natural enclave that has lain undisturbed for ages. Until, that is, newly invigorated mainland Chinese commercial power, awakened and hungry, determines that the seaside community needs to be subdued, mastered, and its hybrid people destroyed so that it can be incorporated into a capitalistic regime of exploitation and control. And these mainland Chinese exploiter-billionaires are willing to use any means, up to and including total slaughter, to subdue the local inhabitants and gain control of Green Gulf.

Hong Kong’s relationship to Mainland China is not something that can be explicitly addressed in a critical way by any Chinese film that needs censor approval and that expects audience acceptance in the mainland. There is no more sensitive topic today in China than the ideological conflicts surrounding issues of sovereignty, whether they impinge on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, the Spratly (Nansha) and Paracel (Xisha) Islands, or Hong Kong. One of the fundamental supports of the Party’s claim to legitimacy rests on its assertion of sovereignty over Chinese territory. The Chinese central government’s current mismanagement of the 50-year transition of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, the maintenance of the Basic Law’s formula of “one party two systems,” Hong Kong people’s demands for establishment of greater democratic governance, and China’s more and more forceful resistance to this demand: these are matters of the highest ideological urgency. If Stephen Chow’s cinema has something to say about all of this, and it certainly does, then how can it manage to do so without looking “political”? The Mermaid takes up this challenge, and goes about it in an exquisitely clever and subtle way. It hides a controversial “political-social” allegory under the cover of another “political-social” but far more acceptable environmental parable.

The film’s narrative conflict and moral world resonate uncannily with Hong Kong’s dilemma today, under siege by an ever more aggressive mainland government. If Hong Kong people are mer-people, Hong Kong is their Green Gulf, and environmental preservation stands at the same time for the need to protect Hong Kong’s cultural, political, social space during the current political crisis. Not every mainlander in The Mermaid is a rapacious, violent capitalist predator. As the mer-matriarch says, “Humans are evil, but …” We have to finish her thought: “… but, perhaps, capable of good?” That “but” enables Chow to give The Mermaid its sunny ending, which seems to deny his oft-expressed cynicism.


Stephen Chow is still, and always has been, creating and recreating himself as the Hong Kong everyman. Though Chow no longer stars in his own films, his principles, reembodied in his new cinema, are always consistent. He’s always embraced contradiction and denied consistency. That’s the ground upon which his radical humor is built. Indeed, The Mermaid suggests that even China’s mainstream culture, allied to power as it is, can accommodate and even celebrate troublesome contradictions and unresolved difference. With this as Chow’s guiding principle, I don’t know of a subtler comic filmmaker working today.


Shelly Kraicer is a writer and film curator, who recently returned to Toronto after 12 years in Beijing. Educated at Yale University, he has written film criticism in Cinema ScopePositions, Cineaste, and the Village Voice.

LARB Contributor

Shelly Kraicer is a writer and film curator, who recently returned to Toronto after 12 years in Beijing. Educated at Yale University, he has written film criticism in Cinema ScopePositions, Cineaste, and the Village Voice. Since 2007, he has been a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has consulted for the Venice, Udine, Dubai, and Rotterdam film festivals.


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