Every director has a little whimsy in him (or her). It’s a crucial element for being an artist. When utilized sparingly, channeled alongside a well-considered storyline or narrative, it’s the reason that movies are magic. On the other hand, overdose on the capricious and you threaten to drown the audience in uncontrollable waves of saccharine schlock. Stephen Chow, best known to Westerners for his cartoon action comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, is actually considered a master of the mo lei tau, or nonsense/ ‘silly talk’ comedies in his native land. That may explain why his latest effort, the speculative fable CJ7, feels so unlike his more famous films. Indeed, it tends to look more toward Chow’s performance past than his present day rise to international superstardom.
Dicky Chow and his father Ti live in a broken down building on the outskirts of an unnamed metropolis. Everyday, Dad goes to work as a laborer. Recently widowed, he scrimps and saves to send his son to a fine finishing school. Sure, it means shopping at the local landfill for clothes, food, and necessities, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. Sadly, Dicky is not so inclined. The rich kids at school mock his lack of material goods, and one teacher in particular keeps the boy at ample arms length, finding him dirty and disgusting. When a particularly nasty little snob gets a CJ1 robotic dog as a gift, Dicky immediately wants one too. Sadly, his father can’t afford it. A trip to the dump however yields an odd green orb that may be from outer space. Dubbing it ‘CJ7’, he hopes his son will be impressed. The destitute man has no idea the changes that his discovery will bring.
CJ7 is a deceptive little delight, a movie that wisely avoids the pitfalls of its obvious homage to set its own cinematic course. Naturally, the nods are easily identified and tend to distract us from the bigger picture Chow is trying to paint. But if you grant the film its E.T. love, and move on to the more engaging class/kids dynamic, you’ll be rewarded with some sunny sci-fi silliness. Of course, there are other motion picture artifacts that Chow is freely filing through, references to the work of Charlie Chaplin, old school slapstick, and the Looney Tunes cartoons the Hong Kong icon loves so dearly. Luckily, a story like CJ7 can sustain such creative schizophrenia. Chow is too good as an actor and auteur to fumble things completely.
Still, the CGI creature at the top of this tale can venture into pop culture crassness now and then. There are moments when such oddball elements as the Mission: Impossible franchise, Rube Goldberg, crime film riffing, and ‘70s disco become part of the comic commentary. Seeing a little green blob “shake its booty” might seem like the height of post-millennial irony, but it comes across as unnecessary and pandering. When Chow allows the character to simply be itself, to stand as a symbol of possibility in an impoverished child’s life, everything gels together effortlessly. The minute it turns into a sloppy sight gag, we share in the need for regurgitation. Movies such as this remind us time and again of Steven Spielberg’s skill. It’s a rare talent that can turn a special effect into an emotional element. CJ7 can’t quite match its main inspiration.
Thankfully, Chow’s reliance on these other sources of inspiration serves him well. Dicky has a wonderful sequence where his newfound toy fulfills all of his wishes. It’s warm without going all gooey. Similarly, a moment when father and son share a ghoulish game of “squash the cockroaches” offers some gross out kiddie fun. An accident at Ti’s workplace has the kind of danger flecked physical comedy that Harold Lloyd and his pre-sound ilk did so well. Chow also has a special way with kids, making them come across as both cartoonish and completely believable. This is especially true of Dicky, who is actually essayed by a young girl. There is other gender bending going on as well, one elephantine young lady appearing to be a boy in bad drag (and a dubbed voice). Chow and the rest of his cast do a good job of balancing the needs of the narrative with the desire to add dimension to these individuals.
Not everything helps, however. The love story between Ti and a teacher is horribly underdeveloped, and the nonstop berating of boy by more mature man and adults will test even the most tolerant individual. Clearly, the Asians believe in the power of corporal punishment, and aren’t beyond slapping a child in the face once in a while. It’s moments like these that argue for CJ7‘s foreign film foundation. We have to accept certain elements of Hong Kong culture - the reliance on dignity and honor, the hard cut distinctions between the rich and the poor - in order to appreciate what Chow is championing. It may seem overdone to us, but we’re not necessarily the choir he is preaching to.
In the end, CJ7 is wise enough to carefully balance its many crazily contradictory aspects. It’s cheesy without being fetid, fun without overdosing on pure juvenile pandering. Those anticipating nothing but “phone home” histrionics will be pleasantly surprised at how this film skirts said expectations. However, those who hate the entire Shrek school of postdated cinematic humor will definitely have issues here. Chow can be forgiven for reverting back to his roots. He wasn’t always a member of the Jackie/Jet set. This kind of pie in the sky production argues for his overall talent and why many see his abilities as infinite. Whimsy can indeed work, as long as it’s handled with care. Chow mostly fulfills the genre’s tenuous needs.