Lord knows we need inspired lunatics like Stephen Chow. Chow is a genial, graceful physical comic in the mode of Jackie Chan, yet even sillier, if you can imagine that. Like Chan, he makes movies that feel conspicuously alien in a Hollywood context, in large part because he’s expert in a discipline that Hollywood has lately devalued. In the U.S., the dominant style of comedy is verbally oriented, with quips, awkward characters, and contrived situations driving the gags. For Stephen Chow, comedy is largely body-oriented. It’s not that he doesn’t script situation comedy–a movie like God of Cookery, with its parody of celebrity-chef competitions (and John Woo movies!), is built on an elaborate sitcom frame–but that he’s more obsessed with performance. Chow is preoccupied with people’s faces, their body types, the way they approach one another, and how they stand in conversation or confrontation. By the time he did Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, it was easy to see how he found the newly-affordable field of digital VFX work to be an avenue for extending the reach of a physical gag, using digital doubles to subject characters to the kind of strain and abuse that wouldn’t fly with real actors.
So it wasn’t surprising, exactly, that Chow elected to follow up those martial-arts farces with a science-fiction comedy that had a wacky computer-generated alien creature at its centre. And a kids’ movie, which CJ7 is, seemed well-suited to his style. (Chow is a smart and funny guy, but his sense of humour could often be described as juvenile.) What’s most disappointing about CJ7 is how the Hollywood template Chow appears to be following–E.T. is the obvious inspiration–has sapped his vitality and confused his storytelling sense. As a follow-up to Kung Fu Hustle, which plays as if a time-traveling tornado swept up the Shaw Brothers Studio circa 1979 and smashed it to pieces on the MGM backlot in the mid-1950s, this less imaginative retread suggests a step backward. Fortunately, there’s still enough vigour and good humour in Chow’s style that, although the film can feel bland and overly calculated, it’s not a total loss.
Writer-director Chow also stars as Ti, a manual labourer coping with a lack of time and money as he raises his young son, Dicky (actually played by an 8-year-old girl, Xu Jiao), in Ningbo, a Chinese seaport where he lives in a half-ruined tenement and works on construction sites. Prowling a local junkyard for discarded clothing and toys, Ti finds a bouncy green ball. (Hilariously, he overlooks the humongous flying saucer barely covered by a thin layer of rubbish.) It’s apparent only to Dicky that the strangely-coloured orb isn’t a toy at all, but rather a tiny alien critter with a rubbery Gumby body and a fluffy head that suggests a mix between a Bichon Frise and a Turkish Angora. Dicky names the green little thing CJ7. The sort of hijinks you’d expect to ensue do as Dicky takes CJ7 to school with the idea that the magical visitor will prop up both his social life and his GPA.
OK, maybe you won’t expect all of these hijinks. In one startling scene, the self-centred Dicky demands that CJ7 produce the “magic weapons” he imagined in a dream. Obligingly, the grinning creature takes a crap in Dicky’s hand. (The proceedings grow increasingly poop-centric from there.) Adults may find this stuff off-putting, but some children will surely adore it. Those same kids may be traumatized, however, by a later scene that starts off like a funny exercise in knockabout peril but ends, abruptly, in on-screen tragedy. Clearly, despite a few drolly-executed flights of fancy elsewhere in the film–this is a movie where even cockroach-smashing is done with panache–Chow is still interested in banging his audience around a bit.
The big problem is that CJ7 is highly episodic in construction, with a resultant whole that’s somehow less than the sum of its parts–and without the emotional build that would help validate its final act, in which CJ7 makes a mighty sacrifice for Ti and Dicky. As a matter of fact, CJ7 is the only character in this movie who could be described as an active protagonist. Look back at the Spielberg film, where the fate of E.T. was very much tied up in the decisions made by young Elliott, to see where Chow goes wrong. Truth be told, Dicky treats CJ7 so poorly that it’s hard to root for him. And Dicky’s a largely passive observer, barely a catalyst for the film’s story anyway.
What’s left is Chow’s love of broad humour, and on that count CJ7 does deliver. The animation for the alien itself is derivative but amusing, and some of the choreography involving real actors interacting with the virtual CJ7 is delightful. I’m not sure how I feel about Chow’s tactic here of pigeonholing his characters based on their physical characteristics–the broad range of types includes eggheads, bullies, and a humourless teacher, all of whom are costumed and treated to emphasize their specific roles in the story. Still, many of the caricatures are striking. One of the schoolkids is a tall, stout giant of a boy, and when he walks the soundtrack is overdubbed with Jurassic Park rumbles to indicate his tremendous footsteps. He finally meets his match in Maggie, an even larger girl (portrayed by a strongman in a skirt, but dubbed with the voice of the tiniest, most delicate Chinese woman you can imagine) generally prone to tears, but who eventually faces off with him in a brawl. Of course, when it comes to romantic interests, the roles are conventional. The potential girlfriend for Ti, for instance, is a schoolteacher played by the very beautiful Kitty Zhang, and though huge Maggie carries a torch for Dicky, the thought of it makes him sweat a little. Where Chow really does strive to invert stereotypes is by making his dirt-poor, working-class characters the heroes of the piece. It would be nice, then, if they were given more to do than just be poor.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
On Blu-ray, CJ7 has received an outstanding transfer typical of Sony Pictures releases. The picture is letterboxed to 2.40:1 and features crisp, saturated colours along with a touch of realistic-looking film grain. Dynamic range is great, with lots of picture detail visible in both shadows and highlights, and cinematographer Poon Hang Sang’s vibrant interior lighting schemes for Ti and Dicky’s squalid flat are rendered with an incongruous lushness. While the Mandarin Chinese audio, encoded in Dolby TrueHD 5.1, isn’t especially aggressive, the soundstage spreads discretely into the surrounds for ambient sound and music, especially in city exterior scenes. The English-language dub is simply terrible, but I suppose somebody listens to these things, and it’s in TrueHD, too, as is a French version. Our Thai and Cantonese friends will have to make do with Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are in English/English SDH, French, Arabic, Korean, Thai, Chinese, and Indonesian.
The movie is accompanied by a full complement of extras, starting with a feature-length Cantonese-language audio commentary including Stephen Chow, screenwriters Tsang Ken-Cheung and Lam Fong, and actors Lam Chi Chung and Lee Shing-Cheung. It’s optionally subtitled in English and French and is an entertaining-enough listen, although sometimes the gist of their good-natured banter back and forth is no doubt lost in the process of translation. There’s lots of information about Chow’s work with the cast and anecdotes from the shoot, plus many references to scenes that were shot but deleted during editing. The disc contains no deleted scenes, perhaps because the VFX work on them was never completed.
The slew of standard-def featurettes is led by “The Story of CJ7” (14 mins.), a standard behind-the-scenes doc with interviews, B-roll footage, and clips letterboxed to the ‘scope ratio inside the 4×3 frame. (This means the footage will be “windowboxed” on HD screens, with English or French subtitles visible in the black bars below the picture.) Chow acknowledges the clear E.T. influence herein and reveals that many of the students on set were, for whatever reason, girls playing boys. “CJ7 TV Special” is, ho hum, more of the same (the actual title, read in voiceover, is evidently “The Making of CJ7”), but with more of an emphasis on the VFX team’s work and the character design for CJ7 itself. This one’s in multiple aspect ratios, including ‘scope (2.40:1), 16×9 (1.77:1), and straight-up 4×3 (1.33:1). English subtitles are burned into this one; French titles are selectable and appear at the top of the frame. “Anatomy of a Scene” (7 mins.), letterboxed to 2.40:1 with selectable French and English subtitles, zeroes in on the production of the specific scene where Dicky is holed up in a bathroom stall with an uncooperative CJ7. A split-screen gives you a view of the scene both as it was being shot and with finished VFX applied.
There’s a lot of shameless filler here, too–an indication of how poorly-conceived features aimed at the “family” market can be. “How to Bully a Bully” (4 mins.) and “How to Make a Lollipop” (1 min.) are painfully cheesy shorts targeted at the Nickelodeon audience, stitched together out of scenes from the movie and B-roll (letterboxed) plus newly shot footage (fullscreen) of a chipper host/narrator trying to make something out of nothing. Neither will be of any interest to anyone over the age of 12. (Hard to believe someone spent time subtitling this stuff in French.) Along the same lines are the goofy “CJ7 Profiles” (7 mins.), mini-summaries of the film’s characters that identify each one’s “super power,” likes and dislikes, etc. “CJ7 Mission Control” is a mildly interactive game involving sending CJ7 into outer space on a rocket ship that might divert small children and nerds for five minutes or so.
Finally, Sony has included the CJ7 trailer, as well as previews for Persepolis, Men in Black, the CE3K 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition (not an original theatrical trailer, unfortunately), Spider-Man 3, The Water Horse, Surf’s Up, Monster House, Open Season, Married Life, and The Jane Austen Book Club.