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Where EAST meets the Northwest

INTERPLANETARY PLAYTHING. CJ7, a family comedy about a poor Chinese laborer whose life is changed after his son gets a strange new toy, is available on DVD. Filmmaker Stephen Chow wrote and directed the film in the hopes of reviving family films in China. Pictured is Xu Jiao as Dicky Chow. (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

From The Asian Reporter, V18, #45 (November 11, 2008), page 13.

Younger audience leads to a simpler Chow


Directed by Stephen Chow

Produced by Stephen Chow, Chui Po Chu, and Han San Ping

DVD, 88 minutes, $28.96 ($38.96 Blu-ray)

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Filmmaker Stephen Chow has a knack for mixing slapstick with sentimental, defusing sappiness with silliness to create films such as Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. The cartoonish action in these films fits perfectly in step with his sweet-and-sour approach, undercutting the standard underdog-makes-good plot. His latest feature, CJ7, a riff on E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’s boy-alien friendship story, takes aim at a younger audience than his other work, resulting in a fairy-tale film perhaps too sweet for many Chow fans.

The two main characters of CJ7, the impoverished single father Ti (Stephen Chow) and his son Dicky (Xu Jiao), set the overtly emotional stage. Ti works himself to exhaustion so his son can attend a top-notch private school, hoping to give him a better life. They live in a hovel on whatever Ti can scrounge from a nearby dump, from food to household necessities, producing a kind of romantic Boxcar Children existence. But it marks the scruffy Dicky out for ridicule, as his gym shoes are unacceptable for P.E. class and he can’t even afford a good toy, like the CJ1 dog-robot owned by one of his wealthy classmates.

Then one night in the junkyard, Ti finds an odd green ball that he gives to Dicky, somehow missing the massive U.F.O. that leaves it behind. Though it seems a simple toy, Ti calls it CJ7, in a typically plucky attempt to show that Dicky doesn’t need the expensive toys of his friends. When Dicky discovers the ball actually holds a tiny space dog, he brings CJ7 to school, expecting it to turn his social life around. But he finds instead that poor kids with good toys merely become an even greater target for rich bullies. And when Dicky’s grades suffer because of all the time he lavishes on his new pet, conflict arises with his father, leading to tragic results that neither could have predicted.

Chow himself is very good as the earnest, hardworking father, and Xu Jiao (who is actually a girl) plays the role of a rebellious yet loving son quite well. But Chow fans who are expecting over-the-top slapstick or his trademark nod-and-a-wink irony will find such moments few and far between. Aside from some fantasy sequences and a cartoonishly huge bully and classmate, CJ7 lacks the typical Chow finesse for walking the fine line between sappy and silly.

What saves the movie from being a sticky morass of sentiment is that Chow doesn’t dwell too long on the more predictable aspects of the story. There are enough lighthearted scenes to undercut the syrupy sweetness, just not as many as Chow’s earlier work, where every predictable plotline diverged quickly into unexpected silliness. Some of this is no doubt due to the younger audience, as well as the simpler fairy-tale nature of this story; it is the medium as much as the message that soaks the film in saccharine.

Yet makers of Hollywood animated feature films, from Robots to Kung Fu Panda, have mastered the art of appealing to both adults and children, with grown-up laughs in spite of the overt and predictable emotion. While Stephen Chow’s other movies are ahead of this curve, possibly because of the older target age group, this one is a bit behind the beautiful balance achieved by American kid’s movies.

Chow’s huge reputation in Asia means those audiences will overlook these minor deficits, just as his hardcore U.S. fans will find much to smile about, sweet and predictable moments aside. Those who are used to the impeccable timing and emotional chemistry of many Hollywood kid movies, however, will probably not find CJ7 their best introduction to a director and writer who is far more capable of fresh and unexpected filmmaking than this movie suggests.

Families will certainly not be disappointed, and many will find themselves wiping away tears of both joy and laughter. But CJ7 will not leave them with the same sense of marvelous awe that Chow’s other work produces. If this is a criticism, it is only because Stephen Chow has set the bar so high for himself that he cannot always be expected to clear it.