E.T. goes overseas in Stephen Chow’s oddball assemblage
Directed by Stephen Chow
Cast: Jiao Xu, Stephen Chow
Actor/director/writer/producer Stephen Chow is a superstar in Asia. His films often outgross those of legends like Jackie Chan. But in America, his works have long divided fans of Hong Kong film into “love him/hate him” camps. Early slapstick-and-sight-gag-filled films like Sixty Million Dollar Man, God of Cookery and Royal Tramp please as many as they annoy. Since the international success of his last two kung fu-based flicks, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, however, Chow’s popularity in America has risen considerably.
Chow’s latest import takes another stylistic turn--mixing the family-friendly sci-fi fantasy of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial with the old-fashioned sentiment of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and the kiddie wish-fulfillment of the Spy Kids series. CJ7 is aimed squarely at kids, families and adults with easily triggered tear ducts. In other words: Those now accustomed to the over-the-top martial arts antics of Soccer and Hustle may not get what they’re looking for.
The film starts by introducing us to young Dicky (Jiao Xu, who’s actually a girl and a fairly impressive preteen actor). Dicky and his widowed father Ti (Chow, who also writes and directs this one) are dirt poor. (The “dirt” part is literal.) Though they’re forced to live in an abandoned building and scrounge clothes from the local dump, Ti saves up every penny from his backbreaking construction job to send little Dicky to a private school.
Dicky’s not a very good student and catches a lot of hell from his snobby classmates for his shabby clothes and unwashed appearance, but he’s determined to make his hardworking pop proud. Being a kid, however, Dicky covets the latest high-tech toys. When he spots the trendiest new robotic dog in a toy store, Dicky throws a temper tantrum. Embarrassed that he can’t afford such an extravagance for his son, Ti scours the local junkyard looking for some sort of substitute. He finds a mysterious green ball, which he brings home and presents to his son.
Turns out the rubbery object is some sort of alien pet, left behind by a visiting UFO. Transforming into a fuzzy, big-eyed cross between a Pokémon and a gummi bear, the newly dubbed “CJ7” becomes Dicky’s best friend. As it happens, CJ7 has the otherworldly ability to instantly repair any broken object--a handy skill for a kid who lives in a junkyard. Dicky imagines that his super-powered pal will sort out his personal, private and academic life in short order. But the fantasy and the reality don’t quite match.
CJ7 is a very cute film. Generally speaking, Asians have a higher tolerance for cute than Americans (call it the “Hello Kitty Syndrome”). Asians can also handle a much wider pendulum swing of moods within their films. Casual Western audiences are likely to find CJ7 awash in a cartoonish mix of heavy pathos, sugary images, over-the-top action, low comedy and shameless tear-jerking. If you can adjust to the whiplash changes of tone, though, you’ll find that Chow handles each disparate element rather skillfully.
There’s a great deal of heart on display here, but it’s an uneven success. Even audience members who can navigate the poop jokes, the grim poverty, the cartoony CGI, the dogged sentiment and the subtitles may find this an imperfect combo of Chow’s earlier nonsensical comedies and his recent effects-filled hits.