How Sony Buried ‘The Mermaid,’ The Most Popular Movie In Chinese History

Right now, every executive in Hollywood faces the same simple and yet maddeningly complex quandary: There is a whole lot of money currently surging into China’s entertainment economy, and American executives are puzzled over how to best get at it. Diverting Chinese funds across the Pacific is no easy feat, and while the major studios have all made moves to establish a Chinese presence, either through partnerships with extant Chinese studios or Chinese branches of their own enterprises, the fact remains that they’re not optimizing their profit margins. (That’s business-talk for “making as much money as they could be.”) Marvel has smartly carved themselves a niche in overseas markets by aggressively pushing their properties with cross-cultural appeal, the most recent example being last summer’s Paul Rudd-played Ant-Man, the design of which bears a striking similarity to jet-packed heroes of vintage East Asian sci-fi. Still, Tinseltown’s top brass has their best people working round-the-clock to figure out how to siphon that sweet, sweet yuan out of Macau and onto our fair shores.

That was Sony’s intention when they acquired the U.S. distribution rights to The Mermaid, the latest film from Kung Fu Hustle director Stephen Chow and, not incidentally, the most successful Chinese film in history. The action-fantasy-romance has already raked in a mind-boggling $419 million in its native China, besting the likes of Furious 7 and Monster Hunt, the two closest competitors at $390 million and $381 million, respectively. With a swiftness fairly described only as Star Wars-esque, the film broke all manner of box-office records, setting new bars for biggest opening day, biggest opening weekend, and biggest single-day take. The Mermaid‘s performance stateside was just as astonishing, with a million-dollar gross across a paltry 35 theaters and a robust per-screen average of more than $28,000 — the highest of the weekend. By anyone’s measure, Chow’s picture has put up phenomenal numbers.

Which poses the question as to why The Mermaid‘s U.S. distributor has made just about no effort at all to support this film. As noted above, this major import has only screened in a measly 35 screens, effectively barring huge swaths of potential viewers from even gaining access to the film in the first place. But in that relatively tiny number of theaters, this film was released almost in secret. Film critic Simon Abrams claims that he’s consulted with multiple representatives from Sony who admitted to not even being aware that the studio was distributing the film. There’s been zero advertising and marketing to spread awareness of this release, no advance screenings for press. It’s almost as if Sony, having already spent money to acquire the distribution rights to The Mermaid, now has no interest whatsoever in bringing it to the public.

I was fortunate enough to track down a screening in a suburb half an hour north of my native Washington, D.C., by the name of Rockville, Maryland. And seated in the theater, actually bearing witness to The Mermaid, Sony’s reluctance to throw their weight behind the release starts to make a little sense. Chow’s latest is an abundantly, profoundly weird piece of work; there was no chance in hell that this thing could play in an American wide release. Set aside the film’s strong message of eco-responsibility, a testy topic among American audiences, and there are still a lot of potential turn-offs in the mix. Chow’s artistic sensibility vacillates wildly between slapstick comedy, gleefully graphic violence, and soft-focus romance with a herky-jerkiness to which it is difficult to acclimate. The man turns on a dime; in a single scene, a mermaid-assassin sent to murder a tycoon spoiling her waters with sonar waves pulls a knife on him and begins to fall in love with him within a minutes-long timespan. There’s plenty of weirdly juvenile sexual comedy, from an octopus-man using one of his tentacles as a phallic symbol to an older man who can’t stop ogling breasts. It is, to put it mildly, not family fun.

Though the showing I attended was in the middle of the workday on a Monday and perhaps not a representative sample, the 10-or-so other attendees were all of Asian descent, and scattered reports from screenings in other cities allege similar demographics. The Mermaid‘s strong showing may not definitively assert the wide-scale viability of highly idiosyncratic Chinese cinema, but it does confirm the buying power of Asian-American audiences in concentrated markets, which is a realization just as vital. To be completely clear, The Mermaid is by no means a bad film; quite the opposite, it’s freakishly imaginative and frequently hilarious. Chow’s a major talent, but while his new film has conquered audiences in China, Sony’s rinky-dink release may have been a wise move. It’s saddening that Sony isn’t willing to cast their vote of confidence in foreign cinema with a little more vigor, but it’s tough to blame them while watching a comic interlude in which the same octopus-man chops off his own tentacle for a hibachi grill.

But of course, just because a decision makes good business sense doesn’t mean it’s good for the world. Having the ability to see movies like The Mermaid — foreign pictures that offer an alternative to Hollywood in terms of style as well as subject matter — is an important moviegoing right, and Sony’s choice here could set a troubling precedent. While more foreign pictures than ever are now available through the wonders of On Demand, being able to sit down in a theater and enjoy the film as it was meant to be experienced is of paramount importance. Sony’s brushing of The Mermaid under the rug isn’t just worrisome news for the comparatively small but devoted fanbase of Stephen Chow. It bodes ill for anyone hoping to stumble into something weird, wonderful, and fantastical at the movies.