Perhaps it’s true that there are no more original ideas in the world. But Stephen Chow has proven, and still proves, that recycled ideas can still be effective if used creatively with a stamp of one’s own. Every one of Chow’s comedies definitely has his indelible stamp on it, even when he’s spoofing other films or paying direct tribute to his favourite movies.
His last film, Kung Fu Hustle, was an homage to three generations of martial arts movies. His latest, CJ7, is his loving tribute to Hollywood’s Cinema Of Spectacle, particularly the sci-fi genre. You’ll find a lot that’s familiar in the film, and that’s not a particularly bad thing because a Stephen Chow movie is almost like a movie-buff’s trivia game. CJ7 is clearly made in the mould of films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Batteries Not Included, and other such films. There’s an obvious nod to the era of those films in the the movie’s score which sounds very 80s.
Chow plays, yet again, a loser with a heart of gold, a labourer who lives in a dilapidated house with his young son Dicky. Ti only wants the best for his son, who is constantly ridiculed by his schoolmates and teachers for being poor. One night, during one of his nightly scavenging at a garbage dump, Ti finds a strange object left behind by an alien spacecraft., which turns out to be some kind of an alien dog. Dicky dubs it CJ7 (and later, Little 7), because he sees it as a replacement “toy” for the one his father couldn’t afford to buy him, a state-of-the-art robot dog called CJ1.
Dicky takes Little 7 to school in the hope that it would be able to help him get out of various troubles, because the alien dog seems to have otherworldly powers. Or does it really?
Chow, once well-known for his brand of mou lei tau (nonsensical) comedies, has become a director with a very assured hand these days. He hasn’t completely abandoned the nonsense, but his films certainly make more “sense” nowadays, although in a fantastical sort of way. If I had to describe it, I would say Chow makes “live-action cartoons.” Shaolin Soccer certainly bears the trademarks of anime action, while the chase sequence in Kung Fu Hustle is straight out of The Road Runner. CJ7 is no different, and what’s a Stephen Chow movie without its spoofs? Here, he takes on everything from Mission: Impossible and The Matrix to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and even his own Kung Fu Hustle. And when a director spoofs his own movies, you know he’s reached a high level of confidence and is very aware of his own popularity. And the references are not only visual, but you can catch some in snippets of the score as well. These subtle references are a real delight.
Despite it being a sci-fi comedy and a tribute to spectacle, thankfully CJ7 doesn’t have to bank on the appeal of its central alien character, which is top-notch CGI and even has a personality, but completely lacks the wow factor these special-effects characters usually need. The human characters are what really drives the movie, particularly Ti and Dicky (superbly played by girl actor Xu Jiao), while the supporting characters are equally well-acted, interesting and funny (especially the rich-schoolboy bully and the oversized schoolgirl). Chow seems to have found his perfect co-star in Xu Jiao; they have great chemistry, and the father-son relationship is touching and well-fleshed out.
But several things bog down the film. For one, the surprise towards the end of the film isn’t much of a surprise, because it’s extremely predictable, and because the trailer kind of gives it away. Despite the pathos that the film tries to build, this deflates the emotional quotient quite a bit.
Secondly, CJ7 falls victim to the one thing that has constantly plagued Hong Kong films. Whenever Hong Kong films attempt to be cute (especially with children), they also tend to be cloying. The cutesiness in CJ7 is a little extreme at times, to the point that it feels like your bad gums have turned gangrenous. It’s annoying and grates on the nerves. Unfortunately, this cutesiness also extends to the character of Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang). I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the dubbing at times, because some of the mainland Chinese actors obviously speak Mandarin but have their voices dubbed over with Cantonese. (Some countries, like Singapore, get the Mandarin version, by the way.)
Still, the only way to see a Stephen Chow movie is in Cantonese, because of the brilliant way Chow delivers his lines and his mannerisms. This could prove to be a problem for western audiences because the English subtitles don’t really do justice to Chow’s great comic timing and delivery (do they ever?). Some might find Chow’s character here almost secondary (the same with Kung Fu Hustle), and that the real stars of the show are Xu Jiao and the CGI alien. But Chow’s such a star that every time he appears, you expect him to do or say something funny, and he does. He simply lives and breathes the edict that the secret to comedy is in not trying to be funny.
Despite its shortcomings, CJ7 is still a very entertaining, hilarious movie. But then again, it has come to the point where every Stephen Chow movie is an event. And who would have thought that Boney M.’s Sunny could be so fitting for a sci-fi comedy?
Gong xi fa cai!