Monday, August 22, 2016

Redboxing: The Mermaid, The Lobster & The Other Side of the Door

by Rob DiCristino
I swear, I tried to find a third ocean-themed film to rent. How great would that have been?

The Mermaid (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)

“The sonar is deadly. I crapped my pants.”
Whereas our current cultural climate mandates that all myths and fairy tales be reimagined as dour and agonizing scowl-fests, Stephen Chow instead goes for Looney Tunes. His distinctive mix of slapstick and romance elevates The Mermaid from the Industrialist-Changes-His-Ways-After-Learning-About-Nature story we’ve seen a thousand times into one of the funniest films of the year. Dang Chao plays Liu Xuan, who’s just purchased the Green Gulf wildlife preserve and is using sonar technology to eliminate its marine life and clear a path for his nefarious plans. By his side is Li Roulan (Yuqi Zhang), a greedy femme fatale who intends to use this joint business venture to merge empires (and body parts) with Liu Xuan and make All The Money. What neither of them knows is that Green Gulf is the last refuge of the legendary merfolk, who, though peaceful and benevolent at heart, have been left beaten and vengeful by years of human indignities. Their leader Octopus (Show Luo) mandates that the merfolk will use the beautiful Shan (Lin Yun) as part of a honeypot operation to murder Liu Xuan and avenge their race. But of course, it’s more complicated than that: the more time Liu Xuan spends with Shan, the more he’s entranced by her innocence and wit, sees the error of his ways, and, you know, paints with all the colors of the wind.

But you’re here for cartoonish action fun! As in his previous films, Chow’s mastery of tone and character keeps The Mermaid’s goofiness from becoming campy or dishonest. There’s an inherent exaggerated reality that comes about when mermaids dance, sing, and slingshot themselves through the air, but every bit is so calculated and confidently directed that it never seems out of place. Sometimes it’s A-plot action, like when Shan goes to Liu Xuan’s office and attempts to assassinate him with a sea urchin. Other times it’s just in the background somewhere, like when a group of merfolk play beach volleyball while Octopus ruminates on his plans. All of it is good-natured and fun; there are very few low-status characters to be mocked or ridiculed. Even when things get serious (and they do), the film is so full of energy and wit that we know it’ll all work out for the best. This is due in large part to the fact that each of the four lead actors knows exactly when to play it straight and when to let loose. Show Luo is particularly good as Octopus, who at one point has to lay his own tentacles over a hibachi grill in order to keep his cover. After so many successful films, Stephen Chow’s actors seem to just go with it and trust that their director knows what he’s doing. Lucky them, and lucky us.

The Lobster (2015, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

“I didn’t know you were short-sighted. I’m short-sighted, too.”
Are you married? Why not? Has anyone seen you? Don’t know know what they’ll do if they find out? They’ll throw you in a hotel, that’s what! A weird one, where you’re all given identical clothes and go to awkward formals over and over until you find someone to mate with! But watch out, because you’ve only got forty-five days to do it! You can earn more days by murdering other singles, but if you run out of time, you get turned into an animal! Sure, you can pick the animal, but still! Even if you escape, it’s not like you can go just home! You’re still not married! Your only choice is to roam the wilderness with a group of people who absolutely, positively do not allow connections of any kind! If you fall in love then, you’re going to have to hide it! They don’t abide that shit! Run! Run fast and far away! Or don’t! Murder! Just start murdering people!

Such is the world of The Lobster, where David (Colin Farrell) finds himself after his wife leaves him for another man. There are no human connections here; relationships are maintained out of utility as much as genuine interest or emotion. Conversations are stark and absurdly honest because there’s just no functional need for tact. Couples are under police surveillance and will be assigned children if they can’t work out their differences. It’s all a big dystopian allegory that critiques the ridiculous world of dating and the various tortures we put each other through in the Pursuit of Happiness. In a jab at eHarmony and swipe culture, singles are encouraged to focus on one distinguishing characteristic and find a mate that shares that attribute (even if it’s “my nose bleeds uncontrollably”). This leads David to fake a connection with the Heartless Woman (Angeliki Papoulia) and eventually form a real one with the Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz).

It’s here that The Lobster’s message gets muddled: David’s struggle is to find balance between forced interaction and absolute solitude. He and the SSW play a couple at first, but form a genuine romance when they realize they both have vision problems. This seems to pay off the Most Dangerous Game Hotel chapter and give David an arc going into the Forest of Endless Masturbation chapter. Their superficial connection gives way to a genuine one, which they nurse in secret until the Leader (Léa Seydoux) finds them out and blinds the SSW as punishment. That connection is gone, but the love remains. They make their way into the city after breaking every boundary the film set for them. What, then, is Lanthimos testing with his ambiguous Waffle House Bathroom Ending? Why would David go backward? Is it a statement on honesty, the price he pays for lying before? What exactly within David is at stake in this moment? Wouldn’t the film be better served by giving us a generous and trusting romance in the face of cold cynicism? Is Lanthimos saying real connections aren’t tenable? Is the film that stark and hopeless?

The Other Side of the Door (2016, dir. Johannes Roberts)

“Oliver’s come back, mommy.”
Children are scary. Zombie children, living children, children who laugh while stabbing you, they’re all scary. But scariest and most tragic of all is the unimaginable torment a parent goes through after they’ve lost a child. Maria (Sarah Wayne Callies) is one of those parents. Six years after losing her son Oliver (Logan Creran) in a car accident in India, she’s still missing sleep and feeling like she could have done more to save him. Her husband Michael (Jeremy Sisto) and surviving daughter Lucy (Sofia Rosinsky) comfort her as best they can, but her grief overwhelms her so much that she attempts suicide. As she recovers in her hospital bed, the family’s housekeeper Piki (Suchitra Pillar-Malik) tells her about a temple that sits along the thinnest line between our world and the afterlife. Perhaps by visiting this temple and speaking with Oliver for one last time, Maria can find closure and move on with her life in peace. There’s just one rule: don’t open the door. No matter what happens, no matter what Oliver says, and no matter what you’re feeling, Don’t Open The Door.

Maria opens the door and all hell breaks loose. The piano starts playing itself, chanting shamen start stalking her, and Oliver’s ghost starts demanding bedtime stories. Piki scolds Maria for her completely predictable behavior and explains that Oliver is now haunting the world of the living. Only by destroying his possessions can Maria send him back across dimensions to be properly reincarnated. That doesn’t work, of course, and Maria must take drastic measures to bring her son’s soul to rest. What follows is the occasional jump scare punctuated by some decent visual style and a surprise ending that should have been the main focus of the film. The Other Side of the Door rides that line between “slow-burn horror” and “nothing happens in this movie” to such a degree that it really comes down to a matter of preference. Those in the mood for a horror film in which a dead child haunts a house will find that they spent ninety minutes watching one.

The Other Side of the Door is set in India and still feels wildly racist against Indians. Not enough time is spent developing real environments or giving the film a sense of verisimilitude that couldn’t be achieved on a soundstage in Vancouver. Hindu mysticism is referenced in passing and ends up consisting of some magic dust and a sword. Whereas we should celebrate international productions that highlight underserved cultures, this isn’t that. Nor does it reach the passionate and emotional desperation of something like The Babadook. Maria and Michael are separated most of the film and share only the briefest of conflicts. Maria kind of struggles until she decides not to. There simply isn’t enough going on in the film to merit a feature-length release. Still, it’s competently shot and tonally consistent; there are creature and lighting effects at play that would be at home in a better movie. It’s easy to see why Johannes Roberts is a successful working director, but The Other Side of the Door simply isn’t worth your time.


  1. Best break down of the Lobster I've read yet.

    1. It really was a good break-down. I had as much fun with the first half of The Lobster as I've had with any film in a long time, but it loses its footing when David finds "true" love. It would've been better-served had it made a commitment to its theme in the end.

    2. Thanks! I'm glad we agree on the ending. It's incredibly frustrating and really diminishes a lot of the good in that film.

    3. I was baffled as to why The Other Side of the Door was Rated R. There's nothing in that film that I can remember to warrant that rating. Not only is is not "scary" but it's not even slightly effective.

  2. Thanks Rob, I agree a great breakdown. I had a werid ambivalent/love thing with the movie, which you described perfectly