As Chow's films have developed an increasing overseas market, he has moved more toward this physical style of comedy, and away from his adroit verbal humor. When I interviewed Chow at the Comic-Con back in 2002, he noted that some of the verbal jokes don't even translate well from Cantonese to Mandarin. But his physical comedy needs neither translation nor subtitles, and most of the gags are visual in CJ7.
For CJ7 , Chow writes and directs but takes a backseat in terms of acting; Chow lets his munchkin co-star grab the spotlight. Chow plays Ti, a hard-working but poor father who tries to give his young son Dicky (Jiao Xu) an expensive education at a private school. But the rich kids tease and bully Dicky, and make fun of his tattered sneakers and lack of toys. After Dicky has a tantrum at a toy store, Ti brings home an odd object from the dump. Dicky is initially unimpressed - until the object morphs into a cute little alien creature with big saucer eyes and a day-glo green silly putty body. The creature, which Dicky dubs CJ7, displays magical powers and helps Dicky change his status at school - well sort of.
Isn't he cute! CJ7 and Dicky. (Sony Pictures)
Although mostly gag-driven, the film also tries for touching drama, which may reflect the fact that Chow never set out to be simply a comedian. He told me, "I just wanted to be an actor, and all this because of Bruce Lee. When I was young he was my idol and I wanted to do whatever he did. So he learned martial arts and I learned Kung Fu. I just wanted to follow him. In addition to Bruce Lee, Charlie Chaplin is my all time favorite. And of course Jackie Chan of and Steven Spielberg -- I'm always a fan of his movies."
You can see the influence of Chaplin in the way Chow relates to the kid and sets the pair in such abject poverty. Chow and Xu are Hong Kong versions of the Little Tramp and the Kid. But the bigger influence on this particular effort is Spielberg. Chow is such a fan of Spielberg's that he felt the urge to do make own version of Spielberg's E.T. Usually when Hong Kong filmmakers tackle a Hollywood film or genre, they explode it. Chow improved on Hollywood spy spoofs with Forbidden City Cop, and on The Mask with Sixty Million Dollar Man . So CJ7 just uses E.T. as a jumping off point for Chow's particular brand of comedy. In China, Chow's style of comedy is referred to as "mo lei tai," which Chow says means "Non sequitor or nonsense. That's what they call me & 'mo lei tai,' especially when I was a new face because I just have really crazy ideas." So although CJ7 draws heavily on E.T., it ends up going off in all different directions and spanning the spectrum from total goofball silliness to family drama.
Chow, like many Hong Kong filmmakers, doesn't observe a dividing line between comedies and dramas: "Maybe there's no line to clarify whether it's comedy or drama or action, that means you can have everything in it,. For my movies, I don't intend to do a drama or a comedy, there is no such thing in my mind. It's just a story and just let go naturally and like that."
Stephen Chow lets his little co-star Jiao Xu get all the attention. (Sony Pictures)
But if you've seen Chow at his best - Flirting Scholar, Forbidden City Cop, God of Cookery, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle - then CJ7 will likely be disappointing. It's as if Chow were on cruise control. I understand that he is something of a perfectionist when working so I don't think he just bashed this one out without care but it certainly lacks the comic invention that made those earlier films so memorable. It's also a drawback that his onscreen time is so limited. Granted, little Xu is a spunky gamer with enough energy to match Chow. But no one can match Chow as a physical comic presence on screen. In past films, Chow has managed to pull off comic pathos and win us over. But in CJ7 , the emotions are sloppier and less convincing.
That said, there is still a lot to enjoy in CJ7 . Chow doesn't observe any political correctness so fat kids and ugly girls can be used for jokes. He has a comic eye for physical silliness as he pairs little Dicky with a huge lovesick girl in his class. Similarly there's a funny bit with a UFO looking exactly like the hat of a construction worker. And the influence of cartoons can still be felt in one alley fight done in animated silhouettes.
Chow also creates a hilarious warm and fuzzy family moment as Dicky and Ti take turns killing cockroaches in their shack. You're not supposed to laugh at poverty but Chow holds nothing sacred. In addition, Chow doesn't feel the need to make Dicky all cute. Dicky has temper tantrums and even beats up his alien friend when he gets made (have no fear, he ends up apologizing). There's also a gag involving Ti's wooing of a young woman who keeps insisting he's not funny.
Chow is mostly serious in this outing, which is too bad. He does have a couple of moments that remind us of his talent. In one quick scene with his boss, he pulls off a sight gag worthy of Harpo and Chico Marx as he and his boss fight. Little Xu is quite the bundle of manic energy, Kitty Zhang Yuqi as the teacher is all sweetness, and Min Hun Fung is hilarious as the smug P.E. teacher.
Kicking E.T.'s... um I mean CJ7's alien butt. (Sony Pictures)
CJ7 (in Mandarin with English subtitles and rated PG for language, thematic material, some rude humor and brief smoking) is diverting but nowhere near the comic heights of Chow at the peak of his craft. Chow's fans will probably not want to miss this since it is his first film in some 4 years, and Chow in any form is always enjoyable on some level. But if this is the first Chow film you see, please go out and rent something like Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fun Hustle to see what he's really capable of.
Companion viewing: E.T., Gremlins, Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle, Flirting Scholar, Forbidden City Cop, Magic Crystal