by Rob DiCristino
The Mermaid (2016, dir. Stephen Chow)
“The sonar is deadly. I crapped my pants.”
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.”
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.”
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.