Already a popular success in Asia, Stephen Chow's CJ7 arrives in the US, hailed as a Chinese version of ET. (It opens today in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco before expanding to other cities in the coming weeks.) Like its predecessor, CJ7 features a young boy who befriends a small alien creature, from whom the boy learns important life lessons. Instead of ET's Elliott, living in the lonely suburbs and pining for his father's return to patch up his divorced family, CJ7 features Dicky Chow (Xu Jiao), living in abject poverty and wishing that his widowed father had enough money to buy him a toy. But don't worry about the differences in the set-up: CJ7 is a gentle and sentimental fantasy, just like ET, filled to the brim with humor. It also casts a sharp eye on the true nature of modern children.
Poor Dicky Chow! The young lad doesn't mind so much going to school with dirt on his face. He doesn't mind so much that his mother is dead and his father can barely provide for the two of them. But what he does mind is when the other kids make fun of his dad. And, what finally sets him off is when he realizes that he can't have the same toy as the other boys in school.
The toy is a tiny robotic dog named "CJ1." Of course, what the toy really represents is everything that Dicky wishes he had. His father (Stephen Chow), a construction day laborer, struggles to make ends meet, barely able to keep food on the table. Father and son live in a tiny, pathetic-looking second floor hovel, where the presence of cockroaches is taken for granted, to the extent that they become after-dinner entertainment. Father stresses the importance of honor, honesty, and hard work; son does his best to live up to his father's high-minded expectations.
It all sounds rather dire, but Dicky appears to be an irrepressible young lad. That is, until CJ1 rears its pointy, metallic head in the hands of the biggest bully in Dicky's class, a smug and spoiled kid who delights in tormenting poor Dicky. When the boy sees the toy in a department store, he begs his father to buy it for him, and wails loudly when his father tells him he has no money. Later, though, when his father is scavenging as usual through the local garbage dump, an unusual item catches his eye, and he brings it home to Dicky as a consolation prize.
To Dicky's delight, the consolation prize turns out to be a tiny, cute, alien creature that he promptly names "CJ7." The creature has a fluffy head of hair and an incredibly flexible body that appears to be made out of a combination of play dough and rubber. When CJ7 magically brings a rotten apple back to life as a fresh piece of fruit, Dicky is overjoyed. Not only does he have something good to eat, but he's going to make a lot of money!
The next day Dicky sneaks CJ7 into his backpack and heads off to school, intent on using the creature to help him ace an exam and gain revenge on the bully who's oppressed him. Things don't go exactly as planned, in a wild series of extended and very funny scenes, and Dicky must contend with his own worst inclinations. More than that, though, he still has some lessons to learn from his father.
Stephen Chow became a superstar in Asia thanks to a series of riotously funny movies in the 1990s, where the humor drew upon local references and clever wordplay. Even without understanding all the jokes, non-Cantonese speakers could enjoy the slapstick physical humor and parodies of familiar movies, as well as Chow's everyman character, a guy who usually thought more of himself than he should. Chow reached out successfully to international audiences with Shaolin Soccer, which punched up jokes with special effects and emphasized Chow's prowess as a physical comedian.
Chow had been a prolific workhorse in the 90s, but he took his time with the follow-up to Shaolin Soccer, producing a film that put the focus more on the community than the individual. Kung Fu Hustle is a very sharp-looking film with admirable sentiments, but I felt it relied too much on special effects to deliver similar jokes. It felt as though Chow had become overly fascinated with the possibilities that computer generated effects opened up, and was dabbling, not really sure how to use the new palette.
CJ7 features even more special effects, but this time they feel well-integrated into the action. As producer, director, and co-writer, Chow does not allow them to overwhelm the picture; they provide a natural expansion, a springboard for the fantasy.
Fans may be disappointed because Chow, the superstar, takes a backseat to Chow, the filmmaker. As Dicky's silver-haired father, Chow reduces his screentime and plays a supporting role, sticking to the sterner side of parental authority. He's a strong enough presence, however, to still be felt even in the scenes where he does not appear. It's as though he's an ever-hovering parent, sensed if not seen.
I'm not a parent, which allows me the objectivity to say that CJ7 depicts children the way I often see them: whiny, crying, complaining, scheming, and thoughtlessly brutal. But it also shows the other side, the wide-eyed joy and exuberance and sheer delight. And there are numerous bits that take advantage of both sides of the coin, so to speak, wrestling humor from the most unlikely scenarios.
If CJ7 never rises above its original inspiration, it still manages to tug a few heartstrings and provide plenty of laughs along the way. It feels rather like a love letter from Stephen Chow to the world.