It seems to be the unlikeliest of box-office toppers – especially when you have an unknown actress cast as the leading lady and a trailer showing a less-than-appealing man donning a mermaid drag costume.
But veteran Hong Kong actor, producer and director Stephen Chow’s latest offering, The Mermaid, has found staggering commercial success by becoming China’s highest grossing film ever just 11 days into its run.
Starring Deng Chao and 19-year-old rookie Chinese actress Jelly Lin, it opened in China, Hong Kong and Singapore on Feb 8.
The fantasy rom-com, which is a China-Hong Kong production, centres on a forbidden love that blooms between a tycoon (Chao), whose business is ruining the merpeople’s habitat, and a mermaid (Lin) sent to assassinate him.
In Singapore, where 53-year-old Chow is a household name among fans of Chinese-language films, The Mermaid holds the record for being the No. 1 all-time biggest opening and second day Chinese film during the Chinese New Year period.
It has earned $3.96 million at the local box office so far, beating Jack Neo’s Long Long Time Ago, Oscar-winning The Revenant as well as star-studded Asian sequels From Vegas To Macau III and The Monkey King 2, all of which were released around the same time.
More surprising to Hong Kong film critics and viewers, The Mermaid has found success in both Chinese and Hong Kong markets – a rarity as heightening political tensions divide audiences and given Hong Kong’s tradition of eschewing works that do well in China.
Now into its fourth week in cinemas, The Mermaid has made 3.15 billion yuan (S$674 million) at the Chinese box office, smashing the previous record of 2.4 billion yuan set last year over two months by fantasy action comedy Monster Hunt.
In Hong Kong, it set a new opening day record of HK$4.9 million (S$885,000), beating the HK$4.4 million set by action comedy Kung Fu Hustle (2004), another of Chow’s works.
Ms Joanna Lam, 40, a Hong Kong moviegoer and a Stephen Chow fan who caught the movie last week, said: “I’m surprised Mermaid has done so well in Hong Kong.
“There was not enough depth to the storyline and I found it too geared towards the Chinese audience, such as in the choice of the characters’ attires.”
The key to the movie’s success – and the glue keeping Hong Kong and Chinese viewers on the same page – appears to be Chow.
This is despite the fact that Chow’s last film was 2013’s Journey To The West.
“His popularity in Hong Kong and China is still sizable,” said Mr Ross Chen, a member of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and a film critic at LoveHKFilm.com.
“His works are considered classics in both places and, due to his dwindling output and retreat behind the camera, he has managed to retain a mystique that someone like (veteran Hong Kong action star) Jackie Chan has completely lost.
“Anything with Stephen Chow’s name on it still qualifies as an event,” he said.
This article was first published on March 2, 2016.
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