The Mermaid (2016) is the biggest blockbuster in the history of Chinese cinema. It’s made waves in the international market as well and I had the chance to watch it recently. It is absolutely delightful, an absurdist comedy trying to get a word on impending ecological disasters that awaits the world. Having watched it without any background in Chinese film, I was impounded with the question, is our viewing experience affected by what we know of the film?
I couldn’t determine whether newcomer Lin Yun exaggerated the shrillness of her voice and maintained a comically blank expression to fuel the absurdist brand of comedy or because she was a poor actor. By the end of the movie I deemed it to be the former, but I was convinced only after reading up on the movie and the director’s brand of filmmaking. Where does this ambiguity come from? If this was a Coen brothers or Charlie Chaplin venture one would be sure it was deliberate.
If I were to isolate my film experience by not reading anyone’s opinions on it, my judgement would be that the movie was great, but it could have skipped some of those theatricals. I refer to the scene where Shan (Lin Yun) tries to kill Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) with a sea urchin. While the intentional ludicrousness is evident now, when I watched the movie, I mistook it for an equivalent of mainstream Bollywood fight sequences (which are exaggerated for hero antics and commercial reasons). This is not to say everyone will mistake the director’s ingenuity. A more seasoned film goer might automatically see it for what it is.
My point is precisely that our film viewing experience has numerous invisible goggles stacked in front of it. Goggles that skew our opinion of the movie, be it the people we watch it with, the reasons we watch it for or inherent bias we hold up against (or for) a film.