Film & TV

The Mid-Year Reckoning

The Mermaid trades comedy-tragedy with the year’s best movies so far (excluding Captain Fantastic).

When I started the Mid-Year Reckoning back in 2003, the idea was to break up that end-of-year best-of habit, and simultaneously oppose the summer-blockbuster mentality by reminding readers that film culture still offered good movies. Now, imitators across the Internet routinely do half-year best-ofs simply to promote the same Hollywood junk. But 2016’s Mid-Year Reckoning has been given a mission, thanks to Metrograph Cinema’s bringing back Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, which had an under-promoted premiere last spring.

The Mermaid became the highest-grossing film in China’s history because, most importantly, it unites the moviegoing public as no American blockbuster (such as this year’s Finding Dory) has done. The Chinese apparently respond to its story: A nouveau-riche financier, Liu Xuan (Chao Deng), who competes with other tycoons to develop an abandoned cove by clearing out its marine life, falls in love with Shan (Yun Lin), a mysterious woman who is actually a mermaid living among other sea creatures, whose lives are endangered by Liu Xuan’s ecological threats.

Chow cares mostly about Liu and Shan’s love story — how their spiritual lives transcend their class differences. Yet, Chow balances romantic concerns with the sociological message. Most American films today (from The Revenant to The Hateful Eight to Captain America: Civil War) work backwards — that is, if they have a message at all. But The Mermaid’s whimsy contains an emotional purity that Hollywood movies have lost to digital F/X and graphic-novel nihilism.

The U.S. media’s many shills strive to ignore our culture’s decadence, but it’s unavoidable in contrast to The Mermaid. Chow is the Chinese filmmaker who simultaneously elevated martial arts and reached slapstick comedy’s abstract meaning and universality. Chow’s Shaolin Soccer and his masterpiece, Kung Fu Hustle, are recalled when Shan and her fellow denizens of the Green Gulf visit the mainland through bouncing, flying acrobatics (Guillotine Cliff and Grinder Mountain) that resemble extreme skateboarding fun. Chow gets silly where Christopher Nolan, say, would aim to be profound, yet it’s Chow who achieves true profundity. His comic characters represent an acknowledgement of the class mobility that, a hundred years ago, was a defining feature of a then-new medium that sought the mass audience’s understanding and approval through charm rather than fear.

Shan’s amphibian community is a cross-section of personalities and social types — from her authoritative uncle Octopus (Show Luo), who has blond dreadlocks, to the cove’s matrilineal sage, who brandishes her great tail fin, and even an old hag who jump-starts the mermaid revolt. In these hilarious scenes, where the poor and indigent are presented as a class unto themselves — the common folk Hollywood rarely deals with any more — Chow recalls Charlie Chaplin, whose comedic purity as The Tramp derived from slapstick’s source in demography — in the bad luck sand plain feelings of the penniless and unsophisticated. While Chow doesn’t falsely ennoble the rabble, he presents them as a species that’s underrecognized and underserved. And unlike Matt Damon’s anti-fracking film, Promised Land, The Mermaid extols ecological virtues without false piety. Note that Chow’s wealthy obnoxious prospectors are targeted by mermaids who want to kill — they embody liberals’ true ruthlessness.

This is how the film’s love story — a rapprochement between political antagonists — fulfills Chow’s theme of mankind’s cross-bred evolution. It’s set out in the opening scenes of an amateur marine-life museum. (These jokes are as amusingly poignant as the fake religious antiques in Jared Hess’s Don Verdean.) A karaoke duet on Liu and Shan’s first date connects their shared desires to formalized pop music, and cultural commentary occurs when Liu opposes his advisors’ interest in branding. “McDonald’s!” Liu shouts. “You mean, Madonna — same difference.” Bravo to Chow for recycling an old Morrissey barb on pop music and fast food materialism.

Chow mixes pop-culture appreciation with cultural critique, and that’s why this Mid-Year Reckoning is also a discourse. Here’s an alphabetical list, to help you keep up with film culture’s best so far:

Batman vs. Superman rejects progressive-era hero worship as conflicted mythology. Beautiful Something looks for passion behind identity politics. Chevalier finds ego-campaigning even in interpersonal rivalries. Eddie the Eagle gives speed and feeling to real-life determination. Eisenstein in Guanajuato salutes the great radical cinema artist on his own terms. The Finest Hours rediscovers modern heroism in the values of the forgotten past. Knight of Cups makes a moral assessment of contemporary corrupt Hollywood. Love & Friendship, a comedy of millennial manners with a Regency twist. Miles Ahead salutes the great radical jazz artist on his own terms. The President dares hold a mirror up to despotism. Sunset Song searches the soul of patriotism. Standing Tall movingly connects a white at-risk French youth to the West’s at-risk future. Valley of Love probes forgiveness through unconditional parenting. Wiener-Dog explores the complexity of human will through tragedy, humor, and metaphor.

#related#The BFG could have been on this list, except that Spielberg misses the points that Chow hits so well in The Mermaid. The two films’ similarities and differences are revelatory. The BFG’s British fairy tale lacks a social-political context, whereas Chow has an unerring grasp of China’s national characteristics. His fantasy is sustained by his vernacular realism. As The BFG drifts off into fanciful deification of an idol, The Mermaid focuses on ethics. (In response to the glorification of money, Liu asks, “What about moral conscience? Money, yachts, cars are meaningless, right?”)

The movie-loving difference between the two films is simple: Spielberg, no longer a modern Chaplin, invests his imagination in sentimental ideology professed by alien and authority figures; by contrast, Chow stays abreast of popular feeling, human history, and spirituality. The Mermaid’s harrowing sequences of marine combat refute the violent mirth of Jaws, while one green-tinted scene of the mermaids huddling underwater to avoid attack ranks with the most poetic images of genocidal fear ever put on screen. China’s Chaplin turns a Mid-Year Reckoning into civilization’s reckoning.

The Mermaid shows at New York’s Metrograph July 8–14.

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Captain Fantastic

“Let’s have a discourse” is the funniest line in Captain Fantastic, a family road movie in which neo-progressive widower Ben (Viggo Mortensen) teaches his brood of six kids (grief-stricken by their hipster mother’s recent suicide) how to be survivalists and non-conformists. However, the basic social unit does not conform to progressive discourse so easily.

“We don’t make fun of people — except Christians,” Ben instructs his kids. Instead of Christmas, the vagabonds celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. This ought to be a sharp satire about progressive egotism, caricaturing how one generation imposes its politics on the next. But Captain Fantastic stays shy of true discourse when it sentimentalizes Ben’s hypocrisy. Cédric Kahn’s 2015 Vie Sauvage (Wild Life) made a similar premise genuinely unsettling, and Louis Malle’s autobiographical memoir of his class-privileged youth, Murmur of the Heart (1971), was livelier and less smug.

Director Matt Ross handles the road-movie genre more gracefully than did the makers of the 2006 Little Miss Sunshine, yet congratulating Ben on his moth-eaten “Jesse Jackson ’88” T-shirt is mere sit-com. So is the nostalgic sentiment teaching teens such antiquated slogans as “Power to the people” and “Stick it to the man.” This is how the film (vibrantly lit by Stéphane Fontaine) forsakes satire and fails to talk back to the new progressive patriarchy. The dead wife/mother who intones “We’ve created paradise out of Plato’s Republic” remains spooky.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.