CJ7

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

A giddy, childlike enthusiasm dominates every frame of the films of Hong Kong writer-director-actor Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer), calling to mind the gravity-defying fun and slapstick logic of old Looney Tunes cartoons. While in theory he seems well-suited for a cockeyed twist on an E.T.-style story of a lonely kid and his odd alien friend, in actuality, CJ7 is only mildly pleasurable. Like a hyperactive tyke, the film has a rambunctious energy that is amusing at times but ultimately wears you out.

Ti (Chow) lives with his son Dicky (child actress Xu Jiao, doing a little gender-bending) in an urban slum, camped out in a bombed-out building. Since the death of his wife, Ti has tried to provide for Dicky by slaving away on a construction crew, with most of the money going to the esteemed private school that Dicky attends. But Dicky feels like an outcast around his spoiled classmates and struggles in his classes.

Dickys sad world changes, when his father (while searching the neighborhood junkyard to find a toy for his son) uncovers a green ball that he brings home. Ti calls the gift CJ7, a reference to the sophisticated robot dog CJ1 that all the rich kids have. Dicky is at first unimpressed, but once his dad leaves the ball comes to life as an adorable creature thats part Tribble, part pooch. Though CJ7 cant speak, Dicky discovers that hes been left behind by an alien spaceship that recently visited Earth. A friendship soon blossoms, but can it last

As its plot makes clear, CJ7 models itself after Spielbergs classic fable about a boys special relationship with his extra-terrestrial chum. Like with E.T. the human protagonist is an unhappy loner whos the product of a single-parent household, although Dickys home life is much more direr than anything Elliott had to face in his comfortable suburban upbringing.

For a while, after CJ7s introduction, Chow appears to be mischievously upending the narrative of E.T. and other similar boy-and-his-pet childrens films. Rather than bonding in heartfelt ways, Dicky and CJ7 have a contentious relationship once Dicky realizes that his daydreams about his alien dog having superpowers (which could help him thwart his schoolyard adversaries and ace tests without studying for them) are just fantasies. Rather than being a loving little boy, Dicky can be irrational and impatient, a refreshing change of pace from typical Hollywood films where the child characters are almost always perfect angels who act like miniaturized adults.

Chow adds a touch of reality to his childrens movie thats rare for the genre, but CJ7 is riddled with many problems elsewhere. As with his earlier films, Chow demonstrates an impish comedic sense, parodying chop-socky and fantasy-adventure movies in CJ7, but often his elaborate action-comedy set pieces feel more like references to other movies rather than inspired sequences in their own right, failing to advance the plot or character development. Consequently, their artificiality becomes off-putting, a lot of manic energy at the service of nothing underneath.

And while Chow tries to look at childhood with more honesty than childrens films usually allow–Chow himself grew up in poverty–hes unable to sustain a satisfying alternative to the conventional narrative model. Dicky and his father bicker about grades and their penniless existence, and theres a playful banter in their disagreements that feels real while acknowledging the frustrations that can accompany lower-income living. Unfortunately, Chow and his five credited co-writers havent created strong characters, just archetypes: the beleaguered father, the impudent child.

In three-minute cartoons, such clichs are acceptable because of the truncated story length, but in a feature-length film (which runs less than 90 minutes), such thin characters are a major hindrance. Ultimately, the characters take a backseat to the action sequences, with only negative repercussions as it severely hinders audience empathy for this familys plight.

Thats a shame because actress Xu Jiao is quite delightful as the young boy. Only eight when she landed the role, she turns Dicky into a handful of a kid: selfish, sweet, lonely, charming, infuriating. Xu Jiao doesnt seem to be acting as much as shes just being natural. As for Chow, he takes a backseat to his younger counterpart, but even then his performance is typically demonstrative. Never an actor of much nuance, he plays every emotion large, especially the comedic moments.

The effects designed to bring CJ7 to life are solid but decidely unspectacular, though its not as if Chow is working within the American studio system and its lavish effects houses. Much like Chow, the creature knows no shades of gray in its performance, and its a good reminder how challenging it can be not only to animate a lifeless character but also to make it seem alive and thinking. As much as Chow wants to create a Chinese variation on E.T., this is one crucial element in which his film clearly pales to Spielbergs classic.

Another weakness of CJ7 is its inability to morph from light comedy to tear-jerking melodrama as its story reaches the final reels. Where E.T. superbly mastered this tonal transition, Chow seems to be forcing his emotional effects, awkwardly orchestrating two third-act near-death sequences that frenetically push emotional buttons without earning such a response. Its a fault of Chow as a filmmaker in general that he overdoes everything he attempts: action, comedy, pathos. One longs for him to try subtlety once in a while instead of just always asking himself what Bugs Bunny would do.

Cast

Xu Jiao(Dicky Chow)
Stephen Chow (Ti)
Kitty Zhang(Miss Yuen)
Lee Sheung Ching (Mr. Cao)

Credits

Running time: 86 minutes

Director: Stephen Chow
Production companies: Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, China Film Group, Star Overseas
US distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Producers: Stephen Chow, Chui Po Chu, Han San Ping, Vincent Kok
Associate producer: Connie Wong
Screenplay: Stephen Chow, Vincent Kok, Tsang Kan Cheong, Sandy Shaw Lai-King, Fung Chih Chiang, Lam Fung
Cinematography: Poon Hang Sang
Editor: Angie Lam
Production design: Oliver Wong
Music: Raymond Wong