Saturday, January 17, 2009

5 - CJ7

Directed by: Stephen Chow
Written by: Stephen Chow, Vincent Kok, Tsang Kan-Cheong, Sandy Shaw Lai-King, Fung Chih Chiang, Lam Fung
Country: Hong Kong / China
Starring: Stephen Chow, Xu Jiao, Kitty Zhang Yuqi, Danny Chan Kwok Kuen, Tin Kai Man

Stephen Chow’s brand of goofball populism, even when coated in a family-friendly sheen, hits me in the right place. Seemingly a departure from his madcap previous films, Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle, CJ7 nonetheless shares with them a love for underdogs and simple, heartfelt morality. Having joined the pantheon of the most world-renowned bankable filmmakers, Chow takes a cue from another of that company, Steven Spielberg, in melding high-concept fantasy with an accessible worldview. Although the title is a reference to China’s Shenzhou manned rocket missions, it and its plot obviously also refer to Spielberg’s E.T. , another story of friendship between a boy and an alien that is a family drama at its core; where the films depart are in Chow’s specific concerns for the Chinese working class while adhering to his successful “mo lei tau” brand of ethnically specific nonsense comedy.

Working off a series of clearly defined dichotomies (rich/poor, appearance/reality, male/female), CJ7 couches its lessons of hard work, perseverance, loyalty, and forgiveness in a digestible but by no means unsophisticated package. The biggest coup perhaps is shifting the Everyman role from Chow himself to the lead character of Dickie (Xu Jiao), a precocious poor kid who, like most Chow protagonists, starts out talented but greedy and ungrateful, and gains wisdom through his trials. In subverting the expectations of both the audience and Dickie, who initially thinks his new alien pal CJ7 can bring him power, prestige, and good grades (ironically, this fantasy plays through references to Hollywood and even Chow’s own previous works), the film becomes the writer-director-star’s most earthbound, so to speak, project to date. Chow’s own resolutely grounded performance as Dickie’s father Chow Ti, firm, fair, a model of working-class dignity, brings a dimension of emotion, realism, even consequence missing from his previous films. For all of the CGI at work (and it is easily Chow’s most expensive movie to date), its real fireworks arise from genuine heartbreak and newfound responsibility.

Like E.T. but unlike most movies aimed at younger audiences, CJ7 portrays childish characters without itself ever becoming wholly childish. With one foot firmly in the harsh reality of Chow Ti’s construction job, the film is free to indulge in the whimsy of Dickie’s world. The otherwise visually inexplicable non sequitur of the large, obviously male actor playing a schoolgirl comes into focus by learning that performer Xu Jiao is actually a girl cross-dressing to play Dickie, thus balancing out the equation. This leveled gender dynamic celebrates itself by playing laughs off of Dickie’s discomfort at the “schoolgirl’s” pursuit and by making “her” the most physically imposing presence in the schoolyard milieu. That integrity and goodness can come from the most visibly unexpected of places is one of CJ7’s chief tenets, another being that foregiveness and renewed potential can overcome disappointments we feel between each other (Chow Ti toward his son and vice versa, Dickie toward CJ7). And CJ7 itself is adorable, rivaling WALL-E’s anthropomorphic hero in cuteness and, in its way, unassumingness. Its power is obviously lifted from E.T. , but its results are reversed in order to bring the creature’s selfless “humanity” as a model more clearly to the fore.

But no amount of rationalization can precisely capture or explain Chow’s sheer ridiculousness, still evident but surprisingly toned down in a kid’s picture. From Chow Ti and Dickie’s father-son game of cockroach-smashing to Dickie’s fantasy of Mission: Impossible 2-style gadgetry, CJ7 tilts the world of childhood transition somewhere between Ozu’s naturalistic satire I Was Born, But… and the Chow-starring high school gangster gagfest Fight Back to School. A heartfelt and loopy hug to the largest audience he’s ever had, Stephen Chow continues dismantling the barriers between high and low, East and West, silliness and sincerity.

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