A new romantic comedy with an environmental message has become the highest-earning film ever shown in China. The Mermaid, a Chinese-Hong Kong co-production, raked in an impressive 2.7 billion yuan ($417 million) in its first two weeks in theaters. Directed by Stephen Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), the Mandarin-language film highlights the evils of pursuing money, and more specifically, the ecological perils of unchecked property development.
For international audiences, the film has a familiar storyline: A wealthy tycoon (played by Deng Chao) purchases a wildlife reserve and plans to illegally develop a scenic waterfront property, which involves using a technology that is incidentally killing sea life in the area. It just so happens that merfolk live there, who decide to send beautiful mermaid (played by newcomer Lin Yun) to seduce and kill him. Instead, the two end up falling in love. A New York Times review called it an “exhilarating, bizarre, good-hearted, blatantly obvious sci-fi-fantasy-slapstick eco-fable.”
The movie had several advantages that contributed to its success, including Chow’s celebrity status and its release date of February 8, right before the week-long Lunar New Year holiday (during which time foreign films are prohibited by Chinese film industry regulators from being released) and Valentine’s Day. Some commenters have suggested that the absence of subliminal pro-nationalistic themes also contributed to local audiences’ embrace of the film, suggesting that its environmental and individualistic themes make it quite liberal. Still, the scale (pun intended) of its success is impressive. In just 12 days, The Mermaid broke the box office records previously held by family film Monster Hunt, which made an estimated $381 million over about 2 months, and Furious 7, which made nearly as much in a 30-day run.
China’s box office, the world’s second largest movie market, has been growing fast. In early December, the country reached a record $6.2 billion for 2015, an increase of about 50 percent compared to that point in 2014. Some estimates expect China’s box office value to overtake that of the US in 2017. In such a rapidly growing market, it is promising that a movie with an environmental message is doing so well.
Sony Pictures is managing the US distribution and has been criticised for restricting its screening to just 35 theatres. Even so, The Mermaid managed to pull in just over $1 million in its opening weekend, making it North America’s biggest opening for a Chinese-made movie since Jet Li’s Fearless in 2006.