Underseen Gems: 'The Mermaid' and 'The Lure'

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Feb 9, 2017

You know how sometimes you're listening to your music on shuffle, sort of half-paying attention, and all of a sudden the perfect song comes on? The song you didn't know you needed, but once those first few notes swell, you know that you're listening to the most pitch-perfect jam for just that place and time.

Yeah. Weird, foreign mermaid movies. Didn't know I needed them until I saw them. And here we are.

Two weird, foreign mermaid movies have come out in the last year, which is two more weird, foreign mermaid movies than I watched in all my time on this planet before then, more's the pity. I’m combining them both in the same Underseen Gems column — weird, foreign mermaid movies are by definition underseen, by virtue of the fact that the precise number of people who should see them is "everyone."

First up we have The Mermaid, the most recent wackadoodle extravaganza from Hong Kong actor/director Stephen Chow. You may know Chow from the action comedies Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer

… and The Mermaid is just as bonkers. Chao Deng plays Liu Xuan, a narcissistic real estate developer willing to rain down environmental destruction on a nearby bay if it means a few extra dollars for him. That bay, however, is home to a group of mermaids (and one half-man, half-octopus). Facing the extermination of their race, the mermaids send one of their number, Shan (Jelly Lin), to seduce Liu Xuan and lure him back to their home, where they can assassinate him.

If you're wondering how Shan can get around in the human world, the answer is "wear long skirts, stand up on her fin, shuffle around awkwardly, and occasionally ride a skateboard, duh." The plot here is pretty standard — of course Shan and Liu Xuan fall in love, of course Shan's love helps Liu Xuan become a better person, of course he ends up helping the mermaids — but it's the Stephen Chow-ness of it all that makes The Mermaid sing. It’s hyper-exaggerated, surreal and funny as hell, with a handful of sequences that are better than anything a mainstream Hollywood comedy's done in the last few years (with the possible exception of the "Mike Hat" scene in Ghostbusters and Jason Statham's monologue in Spy.) Take the police station scene. Judd Apatow freaking wishes.

For all its goofiness, which Chow sometimes elevates to the level of slapstick, The Mermaid still has a sharp, at times verging on cynical quality that makes it consistently surprising; you're never quite sure where it's going to go. One minute, Liu Xuan and Shan sing a duet with such passion that Liu Xuan's fake mustache comes flying off; the next, the aforementioned half-man, half-octopus has to go undercover as a sushi chef and … uh … let's just say things get dark. But dark only in substance, never in style, so that The Mermaid resembles nothing so much as an R-rated, live-action, Chinese Looney Tunes movie. (Looney Tunes were always pretty violent, after all.)

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Agnieszka Smoczynska's The Lure, which is about as different from The Mermaid as one weird, foreign mermaid movie can get from another weird, foreign mermaid movie. While it has some moments comedy-wise, the mermaids here are more along the lines of "ennui-beset young women who will rip men's throats out with their teeth" than "wacky band of bumbling assassins." But hey, sometimes you're in the mood for one, and sometimes you're in the mood for another.

For her first feature as a director, Smoczynska makes the somewhat audacious choice to combine the fairy tale, horror, coming-of-age drama and, uh, disco musical genres? It doesn't always work — like the mermaid sisters at its story's center, The Lure suffers from intermittent aimlessness — but damned if you've never seen a movie quite like this before.

Our modern-day Little Mermaid is Silver (Marta Mazurek), who together with sister Gold (Michalina Olszańska) decides to hop on up to the human side of Warsaw and join a band … like one does. (This is possibly due to a particular quirk of The Lure's mermaid mythology — they're mermaids as long as water touches them, with their fins turning to legs whenever they dry out.) Silver swiftly falls for the band's bassist (Jakub Gierszał), who's interested in her if not exactly gaga. That's a problem, because The Lure includes a bit of fairy tale lore that Disney conveniently left out: If a mermaid falls in love with a human and that human marries someone else, the mermaid will turn to sea foam.

Other familiar fairy tale elements are scattered throughout: Silver sacrifices her voice at one point and the sea king Triton puts in an appearance as the mohawk-sporting lead singer of a punk band. But for the most part, The Lure tells an original story. And I do mean original -- at turns peppy, dour, emotional and violent, it reads like a fu**ed-up, R-rated (well, more R-rated than usual) Sofia Coppola movie.

And I mentioned it's a musical, right? About semi-feral mermaids. It opened last week. Go see it. Now.