If you follow the global box office, you probably already know that the Chinese box office is exploding, and may soon overtake the US as the world’s biggest market for cinema. You also might’ve recently heard of a movie called The Mermaid that is smashing Chinese box office records like friggin’ crazy. In the short time since its Feb. 8th release, the film has already earned over half a billion bucks worldwide, making it the country’s highest grossing film of all time. That means it beat out Furious 7, Jurassic World, Transformers: Age of Extinction, and many, many more.
The Mermaid has been a hit with critics, too, and got a very limited release in the US last month. But as of March 2, its US box office earnings only account for .4% of its total gross.
So what is The Mermaid, and why did Chinese audiences show up in massive numbers to see it? The film is a fantastical, funny, and grand story about (you guessed it) a mermaid, tasked with assassinating a handsome business tycoon who’s been unwittingly driving the local population of merfolk from their underwater home. Check out the slightly NSFW trailer below.
It’s the latest film from Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Chow: writer, director, and star of the classic martial arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle. Chow is, hands down, one of the best and funniest Hong Kong filmmakers of his generation. He got his start as an actor on Chinese television in the early 80s, and began directing films about a decade later. Soon after that, he became the triple threat he is today. If you haven’t seen a Stephen Chow film yet, do yourself a favor and queue up one (or more, but preferably all) of the following movies.
God of Cookery
In this 1996 comedy, Chow stars as a celebrity chef (also named Stephen Chow, oddly enough) who’s built a massive business out of appearing on cooking shows and putting his name on boxes of pre-packaged foods. When he’s publicly challenged by another chef, the truth comes out: Chow is a massive fraud, the figurehead of a food empire who can’t cook a thing to save his life. Tossed into the slums, Chow joins forces with the local street food vendors, teaching them proper business practices in exchange for culinary inspiration.
While some might consider it a deeper cut in his filmography, I think God of Cookery is a wonderful place to start. The film, despite being 20 years old, is still relevant in today’s celebrity chef craze. The absurd humor and cartoonish slapstick, typical of Chow’s style, is evergreen and just as funny now as it was in ’96.
Here’s where Chow’s cartoon influences really start to dominate. Shaolin Soccer is in a league with movies like the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, and by that I mean it’s a hyperkinetic, effects-heavy sports film that gets very, very silly. The story concerns a burned-out old soccer player who used to be known as Golden Leg. The now disabled Golden Leg happens upon Sing (Chow, of course), a master of Shaolin Kung Fu, and sees an opportunity to teach Sing to play soccer. The two recruit a team of rag-tag locals, including a baker who uses her mastery of tai chi to make steamed buns.
The Weinstein Brothers and the folks at Miramax brought this film over to the states, but in typical Weinstein fashion, they cut 23 minutes out of the movie, and had much of the Chinese-language signage and text digitally painted out and replaced with English. If you really want to experience Shaolin Soccer, hunt down the original cut. Due to its frequent use of bullet time effects and dodgy CGI stunts, I don’t think Shaolin Soccer has aged as well as God of Cookery. But it’s still very good — great, at times — and I’d still consider it an essential Stephen Chow film.
Kung Fu Hustle
Others might tell you to start here, but with Kung Fu Hustle, you’ve hit the ceiling. This is Chow’s masterpiece, and I don’t throw that term around willy-nilly. This is one of the best comedies and best action films of the early 2000s, a wacky and singular movie that Bill Murray once called “the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy.” The story takes place in 1930’s Shanghai, where a mob of axe-wielding gangsters have the whole city under their thumbs. Local street rats Sing (played by Chow) and Bone, looking to impress the mob, intimidate the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a run-down apartment block that just so happens to be the home of several masters of martial arts.
Similar to God of Cookery, Kung Fu Hustle tells the redemption story of a morally corrupt buffoon who learns humility and unlocks his inner talents by clashing with and eventually embracing the wisdom and ethic of working class people. The template is plainly there, but Kung Fu Hustle is funnier, crazier, more technically polished, and full of jaw-dropping martial arts choreography. It also has the single best knife-throwing scene in all of cinema. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but you simply have to see it for yourself.
As of March 1, 2016, the following Stephen Chow films are available on Netflix Instant (US):
God of Cookery
King of Comedy
Shaolin Soccer (US Cut)
Journey to the West
King of Beggars
Justice, My Foot
Out of the Dark