Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2008

CJ-phone home

Stephen Chow takes a change of pace, but his comedic gifts are still on full display in 'CJ7'

Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenplay: Stephen Chow, Chi Keung Fung, Vincent Kok, Sandy Shaw and Kan-Cheung Tsang
Starring: Stephen Chow, Jiao Xu, Chi Chung Lam, Kitty Zhang Yuqi, Shing-Cheung Lee and Min Hun Fung
Rated PG / 1 hour, 26 minutes
(out of four)

Stephen Chow knows movies. He knows exactly what makes them work. He knows their little absurdities and their silliness and he knows why we love them all the same. He knows the styles, the genres, the cliches and the classics, and he knows them as well as anyone. That's part of what makes his films so entertaining.

Anyone can drop references to other movies and pass it off as homage or irony. But few can do so with such brilliant comedic invention as Chow. Most American audiences will probably know him best for his 2005 masterpiece, Kung Fu Hustle. Some think his previous film, Shaolin Soccer, was even better. Either way, Chow has proven himself a master of cinematic juxtaposition, and he proves so yet again with CJ7, a change-of-pace family film that chronicles that old stand-by, the boy and his pet. (See The Water Horse from late last year.)

In this case, the pet was never really intended as a pet. All it looked like was a giant green rubber ball when his dad, Ti (Chow), found it in a junkyard while looking for a new pair of shoes for his boy. What it turned out to be was a jack-of-all-trades alien puppy (ish) thing that accidentally got left behind when a UFO crash-landed in town. (Think E.T.)

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The boy is named Dicky (Jiao Xu), and his dad was roaming around the junkyard because he uses all his wages from his construction job to send Dicky to an expensive private school. He's raised his son with good values, insisting that if he doesn't lie, doesn't cheat, doesn't steal and treats others well, people will respect him, no matter how much money he has. Dicky takes this to heart; when the teacher asks the class to stand up and tell everyone what they want to be when they grow up, Dicky proudly answers: "I want to be a poor person."

But naturally, Dicky's not the most popular kid. He gets kicked out of gym class because his shoes are too ratty. He lives in a roach-laden, one-room shack with his dad, who never comes to the school for fear of shaming his son. Dicky always has dirt on his face, his clothes aren't pressed, he doesn't have any of the expensive new toys his classmates have - but dad does the best he can.

When the silly rubber ball his dad brings home from the junkyard turns into the alien toy that Dicky names CJ7, he assumes it will be a godsend for him. CJ7 has special powers - this much we know. What exactly those powers are escape Dicky. And so, naturally, he assumes that his new pet will be able to help him ace his exams, dominate gym class, embarrass (or beat up) his cruel teachers, and even rocket-launch himself out of danger. He even imagines that CJ7 is so adept at martial arts that he will be able to beat down the meanest dog in the neighborhood.

Chow devises two brilliant sequences of Dicky's first day at school with CJ7 - first, the one he imagines will happen, and then the one that actually happens - using identical structure and visual parallels with drastically and hilariously different results. It's the most inspired sequence in the film. In the imagined version, just as he is about to square off with those who have wronged him, he deadpans: "Bitterness, like the sea, is boundless."

Chow's patented brand of ironically heightened drama comes across in dream sequences, action scenes and even in casual dialogue. Consider Dicky's first run-in with his obsessive-compulsive teacher one morning before school: "You are always dirty, and you are very wicked." Or the way the schoolchildren personify archetypes of hard-boiled adult dramas.

In its limited release, CJ7 has garnered a lukewarm reception, with many comparing it too harshly to some of his past work. I admit that it doesn't always reach those heights, but the invention and humor in this movie surpasses anything you'll see in most comedies or family films this year.

It's also an unusually daring film for a kids' movie, and Chow deftly weaves in comedy, special effects and melodrama, letting them bounce off one another in order to create an experience that only could have come from one filmmaker. Some are already anxiously awaiting the sequel to Kung-Fu Hustle; but for now, CJ7 is a great Stephen Chow fix.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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