Tag Archives: Mermaid

CAPSULE: THE MERMAID (2016)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Chao Deng, Show Lo, Yuqi Zhang

PLOT: A wealthy Chinese business tycoon buys prime coastal real estate, but his Capitalist plans will destroy life for a tribe of mermaids (and one mer-octopus) living there. The merfolk dispatch an assassin to disrupt the tycoon’s plans, but they end up in a sappy romance instead.

Still from The Mermaid (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A stylish and entertaining comedy, yes. It’s good, clean, silly fun, even fit fare to bring the kiddies. But it doesn’t touch the farthest rim of the outside category of the fringe weird movies considered here. A helpful note to future List aspirants: “fantasy” does not automatically equal “weird.”

COMMENTS: From the opening credits over shots of factories belching smoke and marine life drenched in crude oil, we expect right away we’re in for a heavy environmental message. To our relief, we end up in a bargain-basement nature museum and a farcical comedy. Tycoon Liu Xuan acquires Green Gulf, a prime island real estate, to develop. That business venture doesn’t sit well with the local fauna, especially not the kind with both arms and gills.

Shan is a mermaid dispatched by her tribe to stop Xuan’s plans by acting as a siren to lures Xuan to his assassination at the hands of a crack team of merfolk activists. But things run awry when she grows emotionally attached to Xuan, despite her leader describing humans as “pure evil” during an expository history lesson. Xuan gets mushy for Shan, too, so the fate of the merfolk hang with these star-crossed flounders. It’s just as well; as an assassin, Shan’s about as threatening as Mr. Bean. Cue Very Important Environmental/Cultural Sensitivity Message you’ve seen a hundred times in everything from Fern Gully to Pocahontas.

Even though it doesn’t qualify as “weird,” there are some memorable action scenes, top-notch special effects, grand scale slapstick sight gags, and a CGI crew who couldn’t resist inserting a Finding Nemo nod at the end there. Keep an eye out for an amok jetpack, slingshot air corps training, an outrageously over-the-top sushi chef routine, and an elder merfolk shaman with a water-bending magic ability. Stephen Chow is one director who knows how to deliver everything you were expecting, plus ten percent. The last thirty minutes even get dramatic enough to almost take itself seriously, just enough to sell the ending. Rest assured, the environmental message is not dropped with an anvil, but a quick smack from a frying pan.

“Hilarity ensues” is about all there is left to say for the rest of the film. The comedy isn’t even surreal enough to make it into territory; this is more like the Chinese Mel Brooks, complete with many classic gags from the farce school of comedy. That being said, it’s a well-done, lavishly produced, fun movie, sure to be a crowd-pleaser—it’s the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time, after all. But “crowd-pleaser” isn’t what a list of weird movies would typically include.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… the weirdest, hokiest and, at its best, funniest big-budget comedy since Stephen Chow’s last film, Journey to the West.”–Daniel Eagan, Film Journal International (contemporaneous)

CURTIS HARRINGTON’S NIGHT TIDE (1961)

Curtis Harrington was an authentic cineaste whose early work was entirely experimental. Among the films he worked on before branching out on his own (as an actor and a cinematographer) were ‘s Puce Moment (1949) and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Reportedly, he was involved with , and certainly sang her praises throughout his life. Rather than continuing in the avant-garde vein, Harrington’s first feature film was the nightmarish cult oddity Night Tide (1961). It’s been dubbed a horror film, but the label isn’t entirely adequate. Elements of , , , and are like layered slivers in this ethereal mermaid opus.

Night Tide was also the late ‘s first feature film. So cemented is his psychotic reputation from films like Blue Velvet (1986) and River’s Edge (1986) that his role here as a clean cut all-American boy under the spell of an aquatic succubus might be a little disconcerting. Yet, Hopper brings an element of vulnerability and pathos to his lonely sailor that makes him ideally cast as one lovestruck for the mermaid of the full moon, and helps make Night Tide deserving of its reputation as a quirky original.

In its subtlety and evocative atmosphere Night Tide owes most to Cat People (1942). While Linda Lawson, very effective in the role of Mora, is not quite in the league of Simone Simon, Hopper is far more convincing and sympathetic than Kent Smith was in the Lewton production. Deren’s mystical influence ebbs through Harrington’s script, his cinematography and the overall milieu. As much as Harrington tried to sell his film as a commercial thriller, his previous work shaped Night Tide, stamped it as unorthodox, and certainly hurt its commercial viability.

Still from Night Tide (1961)While on leave, Johnny (Hopper), looking for female companionship, roams through a Venice Beach carnival and meets the mysterious Mora (Lawson) at a jazz bar. Strangely enough, we never see Johnny with other sailors. He only seems a sailor because we are told he is one. Otherwise, he is an outsider, dislocated in the world, and draws to another misfit soul in Mora (which makes more sense than the bourgeoisie Oliver being attracted to exotic Irena in the afore mentioned Cat People). Mora plays a mermaid in a sideshow exhibit in the carnival. Her employer is her adoptive father, Captain Sam (Gavin Muir). Johnny’s relationship with Mora is replete with obstacles, the biggest being Mora’s latent belief that she turns into a mermaid during the fill moon. Sam reveals to Johnny that he found Mora on a Mediterranean Island. Sam’s explanation is intentionally vague and masks incestuous desire. Ellen (Luana Anders, with a cup of coffee seemingly glued to her hand), is an employee of the carnival and clearly drawn and attracted to Johnny. But,  Ellen’s  concern for Johnny’s welfare is foremost, since two of Mora’s former boyfriends died of mysterious circumstances. With one beguiling exception, Night Tide is revealed to be entirely psychological.

That one exception is the bizarre presence of one of Mora’s “Sea People.” This presence is intentionally never explained, and even contradicts the revelations of the film. The casting of the Sea Witch is intriguingly layered: she is played by Marjorie Cameron, who happened to be a real life disciple of . The remaining casting sells the film: Hopper, Lawson, Anders, and Muir are superb in their eccentric roles. Harrington’s camera captures them repeatedly in cerebral close-ups.

There has been renewed interest in Harrington lately. Flicker Alley has recently released “The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection“, and Night Tide is receiving a Blu-ray release in October.

CAPSULE: ONDINE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Neil Jordan

FEATURING: Colin Farrell, Alicja Bachleda, Alison Barry, Stephen Rea

PLOT: An Irish fisherman scoops up a girl in his nets one day; is she actually a selkie?

Still from Ondine (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s not weird (that’s not a spoiler; weird is an aesthetic choice, and the movie might not be weird even if Ondine is a selkie).

COMMENTS:  Neil Jordan has gone weird from time to time (The Company of Wolves, The Butcher Boy), but even when he’s not being totally bizarre he’s often at least provocative (The Crying Game).  It’s therefore strange to see him helm a movie that plays it so safe, that aims so squarely at a middlebrow arthouse crowd who only ask for picture postcard vistas and enough painfully dramatic soul-searching to make the happy ending seem well-earned.  Starting with the myth of the woman from the sea who falls in love with a mortal man, Ondine breathes in magic, but exhales mere quality.  The cinematography by Christopher Doyle captures the quaint beauty of an Irish fishing village and the majesty of the surrounding ocean (often shot on overcast days so that the sky and the sea share a uniform blue-gray tint).  Performances by the principals are also top notch.  As Syracuse, the on-the-wagon alcoholic subsistence fisherman with a sickly daughter, Colin Farrell projects ancient guilt and sadness: this bedraggled, sad-eyed ex-rake never looks more at home than when he’s in a confessional.  Polish beauty Alicja Bachleda has an otherworldly sensuality that serves her character well; she goes swimming in sun dresses, then lounges in the sun like a seal with the wet clothes clinging to her.  Young Alison Barry does fine in a role we’ve seen many times before: the sad outcast kid whose belief in magic teaches the adults in her life a thing or two about the power of hope.  As for the script, in its mechanics, it’s hard to criticize (though I would have killed off a different character).  Jordan’s writing provides proper character depth and ties up loose ends cleverly.  The film’s overall narrative strategy, on the other hand, isn’t as easy to cozy up to.  It starts as a slow but pleasant drama with the ambiguity about Ondine’s true nature driving the tale, then wanders around in some melodramatic side alleys before resolving itself with a thriller conclusion that drains the magic out of the film.  The film also has a technical issue: for Americans, at least, the dialogue can be hard to make out due to the authentic Irish brogues and low conversational sound levels.  Stephen Rea, in particular, is indecipherable when he hushes his voice; I couldn’t turn the sound up loud enough to make out what he was saying.  Overall, it’s easy to see how someone could be briefly charmed by Ondine, but it’s hard to imagine even the most romantic soul being enchanted by it.  It’s more of a movie to flirt with than to take home to bed.  It seems like the kind of classical, meditative, risk-free story older filmmakers tackle when they want to make sure they are being taken seriously as artists—but it’s that very self-seriousness that makes what emerges a minor work.

“Ondine” was a 1939 play by Jean Giraudoux about a water nymph who falls in love with a knight.  Tales of women from the sea falling in love with mortal men are a common motif in fairy tales.  The film Ondine adapts Celtic folklore about the selkie, a seal who can shed her skin to become a beautiful female and mate with mortal men.  The same legend formed the basis of John Sayles’ 1994 independent arthouse hit The Secret of Roan Innish.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…works best when it stays within the blurry in-between space separating the everyday world from that belonging to story-time flights of fancy.”–Manhola Dargis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)