Here's an object lesson in what cultural hegemony looks like, from the perspective of the hegemon. So at this point in history, China is the second-largest market for American films after the United States itself, and several of the highest-grossing films in the history of the Chinese box office are American studio blockbusters: Furious 7, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Zootopia, and so on. However, as of the spring of 2016, the single highest-grossing film in the history of the Chinese box office is a home-grown production, The Mermaid (replacing another native production, Monster Hunt), and let's agree for the sake of having data to work with that we'll overlook the amount of chicanery that allegedly goes into boosting China's box office hits. The Mermaid was a big damn hit, is the point, among a population who make big damn hits out of the same movie that Americans make into big damn hits. Then it crossed the Pacific, and was released into the United States in a microscopic, hastily-planned release that made almost $3.25 million in its seven-week run, hitting #17 on the box office lists the weekend it opened and drifting down from there. Because when you live in the country where all those Hollywood blockbusters get made, nobody can force you to give a fuck about what they're doing anywhere else. U! S! A!

Setting aside what it says about Americans' incuriousity about subtitled movies, I can't pretend that it's a world-class crime that The Mermaid couldn't make bigger inroads. Oh, it's undoubtedly a good deal better than plenty of gigantic Hollywood hits, of course. And other than being in Mandarin, I can't think of a single culturally-specific element of the movie that should have hampered its financial prospects outside of China, at least no more than Furious 7 or Age of Extinction are culturally specific. It's charming throughout, and at times enormously funny, and it even manages to justify some cheap-looking CGI by presenting it in the guise of whirlwind cartoon slapstick. It is perhaps (probably) less charming, less funny, and less effectively cartoonish than director Stephen Chow's best-known films in the English-speaking world, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, which both came out during the last period when subtitled movies could actual snag pretty wide distribution in the States and acquire an appreciative audience in this country at least kind of commensurate with their merits. But it's pretty delightful nonetheless and a worthy mid-tier addition to the director's list of films, which now stands at an even ten titles.

The fantasy romcom adventure movie is also a message movie, presented with all the grace and delicacy of a bullhorn pointed straight at your ear: The Mermaid really, really hates industrial pollution, and wants to whip us all up into a frenzy of... well, I'm not quite sure, to be honest. The film is too silly and light-hearted to engender actual anger in its viewers, even if Chow purposefully negotiates a shift in energy in the last third of the movie towards something more somber and sincere. Regardless of all that, it's already going in on the anti-pollution themes from the very start, before we have a plot or even an inkling (beyond the title) of the scenario: the opening credits are set against a montage of brightly colored toxic wasted being dumped - by boats, or straight out of the factories, it's all the same - into bright blue water. It's an especially intriguing opening gambit because it certainly feels like it should be ugly and terrible: the images are almost like a parody of the excess of digitally-augmented color palettes that so often make the bland pop films of all nations drift from "unmemorable" to "actively irritating. But it works, almost exactly for the reason that it's eye-searing and tacky: the blaring colors quickly get across the point that this is all very unnatural and wrong, and it sets the movie on exactly the right footing - everything to follow will be in service to consequential ideas, but always in a brighty, movie-friendly way.

The story is, allegedly, Chow's attempt at a Little Mermaid-infused Western-style fairy tale, and I guess I can see that. Business genius and all-around hearthrob Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) has lately acquired a portion of the ocean called Green Gulf, up till now a marine preserve, to develop it. This involves, in part, using sound waves to antagonise and drive away the sea life, which includes the last population of merpeople, living in a shipwreck, and they are done being humanity's victims: one of their own, a mermaid named Shan (Lin Yun), has been trained and physically altered so that she can reasonably pass as a human (albeit a human perpetually wearing floor-length dresses and chunky boots), to seduce Xuan and assassinate him. Naturally enough, she starts to fall in love with him and vice-versa, though not until she's already failed to murder him by a few different methods.

There's frankly very little doubt where this is going to end up, at any point (though I'd be curious if the bone-deep clichΓ©s the film uses played at all fresher in China), but The Mermaid is all about the layovers on the way, not the destination. Chow's overriding strength as a filmmaker has always been his creative sense of fearlessly wacky slapstick comedy - Kung Fu Hustle is the closest thing to a feature-length Bugs Bunny vehicle as I have ever seen, and that's including two different actual feature-length Bug Bunny vehicles - and The Mermaid goes all-in on big, dumb comic moments, ranging from the closest thing to actual wit that's likely to show up in an effects-driven film, all the way to the completely tasteless and crude. At one point, the pissy octopus-man (Luo Show) who most hates humanity out of all the merpeople, ends up disguised as a hibachi chef, and has to do his best to avoid breaking while his limbs are being chopped up and cook right on the spot - that tasteless and crude, and the scene sits proudly on the blurry line between wonderfully zany and horribly unsettling. Or, there's the early scene that successfully plays as high comedy the act of blowing up a goldfish with sound waves while scary music plays.

Mostly, though, The Mermaid lives in a place of friendly absurdity. In one scene, Shan and Xuan engage in impromptu musical number with a cheesy kung fu movie flair; the film's villain (Zhang Yuqi) is introduced on a barely-controlled jetpack that turns into the first of the flat-out goofy visual jokes; there is an "octopus tentacle that looks like a giant dick" joke that works better than you'd ever believe, in no small part because Luo is so madly committed to his role that the dick joke is only, like, the third most vital part of the shot. There's an extended bit about communicating "half woman, half fish" to a pair of policemen that is, legitimately, the funniest thing I've seen in a 2016 film.

It's an easy film to like, is the point. The earnestness and directness of the environmentalist message certainly complicates what I'm about to claim, but The Mermaid really is just lightweight popcorn fun, with exactly the same beats as any mainstream romantic comedy of the last decade, approached as physically anarchic rather than character-based. Unchallenging crowd-pleasers transcend culture, it would appear, but from the perspective of one of the most ruthlessly middle-of-the-road summer movie seasons in recent memory, I'm a little annoyed that America has to import its crowd-pleasers just to have a good one.