With precision timing, Sony Classics has released Stephen Chow's CJ7 in Bay Area theaters a full month after Chinese New Year's Day. But no matter — Chow's family-friendly parable of an impoverished boy and his father can still bring a little Year of the Rat good luck to the young at heart. All we have to do is let go and suspend our sense of baked-on urban skepticism for about ninety minutes.
The PG-rated fantasy has the same moral and thematic contours of E.T. or an old-school Disney animated fable, but with the character and technical panache we've come to expect from Chow, creator of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle and reportedly the top comedy star in Asia. Basically, young Dicky Chow, picked on at school because of his raggedy shoes and dirty face, learns from a friendly extraterrestrial that family togetherness and love are more important than piles of money or the latest high-tech gadget. Awww.
Dicky is played convincingly by a nine-year-old girl named Xu Jiao, discovered after Stephen Chow's production company auditioned thousands of kids all over China and then decided the best actor to play the lead boy was a girl. Dicky attends a ritzy private school where seemingly his only friend, aside from a mountainous schoolgirl, a fellow outcast named Maggie (Han Yong Wua), is the proverbial pretty teacher with a heart of gold, Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang). She takes pity on Dicky when everyone else, including Dicky's cruel teacher Mr. Cao (Lee Sheung Ching), humiliates him for his gentle nature and lack of greed. Indeed, when children in the class are asked to stand up and state their ambitions, Dicky shyly asserts: "I want to be a poor person." The inference being that poor people don't take unfair advantage over others in their haste to acquire riches. Filmmaker Chow presents this story in Mandarin, the official language of the People's Republic of China, instead of in Hong Kong's usual Cantonese — could he be making an editorial point about the dubious phenomenon of Chinese prosperity at all costs?
Dicky's dad Ti, played by the writer-director himself, pays for his son's education, barely, by laboring as a hod carrier and all-around flunky at a construction site, where the boss (all-purpose comic Lam Tze Chung, Chow's sidekick in Kung Fu Hustle) delights in giving him the worst jobs available. Adding to the overall Charlie-Chaplinesque feel is the half-wrecked squat where Ti and Dicky live, a grubby closet-sized room accessed by a rickety ladder.
After their customary evening meal of rice and overripe vegetables and fruit plucked from garbage cans, father and son amuse themselves by swatting cockroaches off the wall. Not two or three roaches, mind you, but hundreds. Still, Ti and Dicky care for each other, even when deprived Dicky throws a tantrum in a toy store over a plaything they can't afford. Their sweet poverty has a distinct European tinge to it — the nobility of want. The power of poor-but-honest.
Suddenly, into Dicky's life comes a miracle. One night at the city dump while scrounging for goodies, Ti encounters a flying saucer that leaves behind a greenish ball. He takes it home and gives it to Dicky. The ball morphs into a furry, mogwai-like critter that the kid names CJ7. Unlike the malevolent multiplying mogwais of Gremlins, however, CJ7 is totally benign. Naturally, once Dicky brings his new pet to school the bad kid and his clique of freckle-faced bullies want one, too. Marvelous things happen — trips to space, two dogfights (the same fight replayed in the space-time continuum), the Battle of the Bulkies, and the movie's best line of dialogue, uttered by Dicky with admirable nonchalance: "Miss Yuen, bitterness, like the sea, is boundless."
CJ7, about the size of a Pekingese dog but with human teeth, has a smooth green body and a furry head topped with a tiny antenna. He smiles a lot and possesses a fantastic toolkit capable of manufacturing magic sneakers to help Dicky in gym class, and magic glasses that enable Dicky to pass an exam. It is soon pointed out that in order to truly succeed, Dicky needs to study more instead of spying on his classmates' test answers. The space dog keeps the Earth kid honest — it's an anthropomorphic field day. CJ7's role as Dicky's newfound conscience, however, does not prevent him and director Chow from engaging in a shit joke, the movie's only moment of abject pandering to kiddy audiences. It goes with the territory.
Let's tally up Stephen Chow's influences: Steven Spielberg, Charlie Chaplin, Italian neo-realism (in this case more like Hong Kong anti-materialism), Joe Dante, a schpritz of Jerry Lewis, and, let's be honest, the dread hand of disgraced buffoon Roberto Benigni. At least Ti doesn't get sent to a concentration camp. To his credit, Chow knows how to take clichés and whip them into a froth of absurd action, as in the scene in which Storm Dragon, the mean rich kid's large hired bully (Yao Wen Xue) takes on the still larger Maggie in an after-school dustup straight out of Kung Fu Hustle. Director Chow disarms corny situations by exaggerating them a hundred times lifelike. Slapstick magnified at the speed of twenty Jackie Chans.
Chow admits he was inspired by E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial — he saw it repeatedly as a child and cites Spielberg as a major avatar — but perhaps his real-life background as a poor youngster in Hong Kong left its traces as well. Chow gives his character Ti the same polite but alert dignity as the best of Chaplin's pathetic little tramps, minus the self-deprecation.
But he's not above making himself the butt of the joke. While in San Francisco on a recent publicity tour, Chow clowned around for a dinner guest in a restaurant by making a big show of his upper teeth. "See these?" Chow said to his companion. "I just got them whitened. I didn't do the lower ones, though. No one sees them, anyway." That's an example of what the Chinese call mo lei tau comedy, meaning "nonsense." CJ7 dares to stretch out from that style into the treacherous waters of after-school civics lessons — after all, Chow once hosted a children's TV show. But the true star of the movie is its changeling, androgynous juvie lead, Xu Jiao, and her broken-hearted face as a kid who could use a few more calories. Stephen Chow, phone home.
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