Meet Jelly Lin, China’s ‘It’ mermaid

In Hans Christian Andersen’s classic “Little Mermaid,” the titular character falls in love with a prince, but ultimately their relationship ends in tragedy as she turns into sea foam.

Director Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid,” which earlier this year became China’s highest-grossing film ever, raking in $520 million at the box office, and one of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival selections, tells a different kind of love story – one set in modern times.

The film – a big-budget “Little Mermaid” meets “Romeo and Juliet” meets “An Inconvenient Truth,” but with more slapstick comedy, a ton of CGI, and of course, a happy ending – tells the story Shan, a young mermaid played by charming newcomer Jelly Lin, who is torn between her allegiance to her mer-family (including a scene-stealing octopus-man) and a forbidden love for the man who is destroying her kind’s environment.

Lin, now 20, was an 18-year-old model when she was plucked from a nationwide casting call of 120,000 young actresses by Chow, the veteran Hong Kong cinema giant whose impressive record includes the still-revered “Kung Fu Hustle.”

Though Lin had previously studied performing arts in Beijing, she had no acting credits to her name. Her freshness would be one of the reasons for her casting. “Chow preferred someone without experience so he could shape the performance he wanted,” Lin told Kore. “He didn’t want to have to deal with those already influenced by certain techniques.”

To cast an unknown in a major blockbuster may be a gambit for other filmmakers, but Chow knew he had found his Shan the moment he met Lin. In fact, the mermaid’s personality was largely based on Lin’s own personality. During filming, he would often direct her to “be herself.” What resulted was a natural, funny and surprisingly endearing performance by the actress.

For Lin, the most difficult aspect of filming wasn’t being in front of the camera, something she had gotten used to as a model. It was expressing the various nuances in emotions and being able to adjust them on command. Preparing for the role of the mermaid included skateboard lessons (the main mode of transportation for mermaids in the film), professional swimming lessons and the perfection of the “penguin waddle” – unlike Disney’s Little Mermaid, who walks on human legs, be it ever so briefly, Shan must learn to walk on her tail.

But despite those challenges, the actress was confident in the success of the film with Chow at its helm. She credited the film’s popularity to his “particular style of humor and comedy” which people have come to love and expect in his movies. “It’s the major reason his films resonate so well with his audience,” Lin said.

His “special humor” popped up on set, too. During filming, she said the cast and crew were often mystified by Chow’s unique sense of humor. Even now, she admitted, she “never really got what was going on his world.”

Still, that hasn’t stopped Lin from being dubbed as the film’s “secret weapon” and Chinese cinema’s latest “It Girl,” something she said she is still getting used to today. Once she became the country’s most famous mermaid, Lin suddenly found herself thrust into a spiral of celebrity gossip and controversy, so often stopped on the streets that she has resorted to wearing masks in public to retain privacy.

It’s the familiar price of fame for celebrities all over the world, but Lin does not seem to mind too much. In fact, she said it wasn’t until starring in the film that she knew she wanted to turn a potentially one-time acting gig into a full-fledged career. “I really enjoyed challenging myself to play someone else … and would love to try different roles in the future,” she said.

Lin won’t have to wait long. Later this year, she stars in “L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties,” a film based on the popular novel by Guo Jingming, as well as in “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons 2” and “The Legend of the Mongol King,” due out next year.