CJ7: Interview with Director Stephen (Kung Fu Hustle) Chow

CJ7 is the latest comedy feature from director and star Stephen Chow following his worldwide hit, Kung Fu Hustle.
Kung Fu Hustle, the second highest grossing film in Hong Kong history after Titanic, was nominated for a Golden Globe, and won a total of 5 awards, including Best Film and Best Director, at Asia’s equivalent of the Oscars, the Golden Horse Awards.
CJ7 marks the second collaboration between Sony Pictures Entertainment and Chows Star Overseas, following Kung Fu Hustle.

Featuring the trademark Chow slapstick humor, CJ7 is a comedy about a poor laborer father, Ti, played by Stephen Chow, and his young son, Dicky. When a fascinating and strange new pet enters their lives, Dicky, an elementary school student, sees a chance to overcome his poor background and shabby clothes and impress his fellow students for the first time in his life. The pet however has other ideas and when Dicky brings it to class, comedic chaos erupts including a showdown with the terrifying school bully, Storm Dragon!

Inspired by E.T.

Chows inspiration for the story started over twenty years ago when as a young man he saw Steven Spielbergs E.T. at the theatre. I went back to see E.T. over and over again, he reveals, and was amazed that science fiction could be filmed like this! I knew then that I wanted to make a movie like that. Steven Spielbergs work inspired me to become a director. Always an original, Chow admits that CJ7 is a slight departure from his previous comedies: This type of story is new to Chinese movies but I hope audiences will like it.

Finding Dicky Chow

Also a first for Stephen Chow is having a child actor as his main co-star. Newcomer, 9 year-old actress Xu Jiao plays Dicky Chow. Chow elaborated on the concept of casting a child actor in a main role: I have had a lot of experience working with children throughout my career, since my early days as the host of a childrens television program, and there is not much difference between casting a child or an adult. It all comes down to talent and whether or not they can capture the character. The most important thing for me was to find Dicky Chow.

The character of Dicky Chow is a high spirited elementary school student with a mischievous streak. Although from a poor family, Dicky is proud of his background and the values that his father has instilled in him. Wanting the best for his son, Ti, works overtime to pay for the expensive tuition at Dickys exclusive academy, but he earns little with his laborers wages and is in debt after borrowing money from his Boss. Rough around the edges, Ti is however extremely dedicated to Dickys upbringing, often reminding Dicky to be proud of his poor background. He desperately wants Dicky to grow up to make something of his life, rather than have to do menial labor work like himself. His father reminds him often that: we may be poor, but we dont lie, and we dont steal…

Chow’s own childhood values are echoed in the character of Dicky. This is what I learned from my own parents, he confirmed. Stephen Chow elaborated on the casting process: After I had completed the screenplay, I began to look for the perfect actor who could capture the character in the original story script. When I first saw Xu Jiao, I instantly knew that she was perfect for the part. I was amazed by both her personality and performance. Xu is a natural actor and a genius.

Finding the right person to play Dicky Chow, however, was not easy. In an effort to find a youngster who could carry the role and, most importantly, who had natural comedic flair, the producers scoured the major cities of China including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, as well as the smaller towns such as Hangzhou and Ningpo. The casting search started in February of 2005 and went on until August of 2006 right up to the start of production. Associate Producer Connie Wong described the search: Once we had a draft of the script for CJ7, we started looking all over China. We searched regular schools, martial arts schools, acting schools and schools with special talent programs in search of a strong actor to play the character of Dicky Chow. Ultimately, we auditioned almost 10,000 kids.

Xu Jiao Stands Out

Connie Wong continued: While we were in Ningpo, we heard from the AD that a young girl, named Xu Jiao, had done an outstanding audition for the role of Dicky. We really thought that Xu Jiaos performance matched Dicky Chows mature personality. On top of thats shes not at all timid and her acting is so natural, so we decided to cast her in the role. On casting a girl in the role of the young boy, Connie Wong elaborated: Thousands of boys auditioned, but we couldnt find one that came close to Dicky Chows personality. While we were auditioning the girls for some of the other characters, we found that they were more natural than the boys and so that gave us the idea of having a girl play Dicky.

Xu Jiao ultimately brought the character to life with her performance. Young Xu Jiao, then only 8 years-old, won the part of Dicky Chow. She describes the character of Dicky Chow in her own words as very lovable, a little mischievous, but kindhearted and real. Although she had done one commercial, Xu Jiao had never acted in a film before. I only found out about my character on the first day of shooting, she confided. The character of Dicky was incredible but I initially thought that it was going to be a small role. I couldnt believe that Chow would trust me, as a first-time actress, with such an important character in the film. I never imagined having an experience like this.

Becoming the character of Dicky Chow had its challenges for the novice actress. As a girl it wasnt easy to play a rough and rambunctious boy, Xu Jiao admitted. Also, unlike her character, Dicky, Xu Jiao is a very good student and her Class President in real life, but she admits there are some similarities between her and her character: I can be a bit mischievous too, like Dicky! Also like Dicky, Xu Jiao sometimes wishes she had special powers. If there is something I cant do, no matter how hard I try, I wish I had magical powers that would allow me to do what I wanted in the blink of an eye!

Playing the part of Dicky also meant one major sacrifice in her transformation to the character of a boy: I was very sad when I had to cut off my long hair I wasnt prepared for that! Xu Jiao admitted. On set, the young Xu Jiao had some unforgettable moments in scenes involving the trademark slapstick comedy that are the hallmark of Stephen Chow films.

The most memorable experience for me was when I had to be sprayed down with the high pressure hoses. The weather was quite cold and the water was absolutely freezing! Xu Jiao also had a lot of fun on set and described her favorite part of the shoot. It was the scene where I am in the closet beating against the door–that was the most fun for me. The young actress natural comedic ability shone through as she held her own opposite her co-star Chow, considered Asias number one comedy star.

Working with Chow made a great impression on the young actress. I learned a lot from Director Chow during the production. It was his determination and commitment to his work, as well as his sense of responsibility that most impressed me, said Xu Jiao. After her film debut in CJ7, Xu Jiao stated: I definitely want to continue to act and I am very grateful to Director Chow for giving me such a wonderful opportunity.

Teachers Pet

Dicky Chow is constantly being bullied by the other kids at the academy for having worn out clothes and shoes, in addition to being picked on by his own teacher, Mr. Cao. But Dicky has one champion at the academy and that is the beautiful and kind-hearted Miss Yuen, played by newcomer Kitty Zhang, who takes Dicky under her wing.

Kitty Zhang describes the character of Miss Yuen in her own words: Compared to the other characters in the film, she is really quite ordinary, not at all pretentious or dramatic in any way. She cares greatly for her students and treats them all equally, whether they are rich or poor. She has a good heart and is the ideal teacher but underneath is still a sensitive and outgoing young woman.

Kitty was able to find some common ground with her character. She explained: I was attracted to the role by her very good heart. Some people might think thats too idealistic but I believe everyone is born with a good heart, some people just hide it rather well or arent even aware of it themselves. I was also attracted to the noble side of her character. She thinks the best in others can be brought out by believing the best of them, as with Dicky.

Being a young actress herself, Kitty Zhang didnt have to look back very far to her own schooling to find examples of teachers she could draw on for the character. I didnt need to do much preparation for the part as I was lucky enough to have known many excellent teachers when I was at school so I just closed my eyes and visualized how they behaved and what they did for the students. She adds modestly, I think everyone knows how to play a good teacher.

On working with her fellow child actors, she commented. I dont think I am the only one who enjoys spending time with a group of children. This is the first time that I have worked with kids and it was the most relaxing job I have ever had! She continued, Its mainly because they are so easy to get along with. Kids are really simple, if you are nice to them and I mean really nice, because they know the difference, then they will include you in their group and you can play with them. They made our crew members feel at least 20 years younger!

On working with the director and her fellow co-star Chow, for the first time, Kitty Zhang commented: It was delightful working with Mr. Chow. He runs a very relaxed set. Sometimes we didnt even feel we were on a shoot. It almost felt like there was no camera on us. We would just chat happily about the kids. Kitty Zhang describes her hopes on how the audience will feel when they see the film: that we werent acting but that its us in real lifein fact, its really a universal story.