Dir: Stephen Chow. Hong Kong . 2008. 86 mins.
Some might have had serious misgivings about Stephen Chow's plans to blend his trademark slapstick comedy with an ET-style story about a poor child and an alien, but they need not worry. The resulting souffle CJ7 is a deliriously funny, determinedly unsentimental family film which will be relished by audiences of all ages.
The film opened top in Taiwan (with $2.7m) and Hong Kong ($2.1m) over the weekend and is set to be a blockbuster performer in Asia over the next few weeks for Sony Pictures Releasing International. It is always hard for foreign-language family fare to break through in North America and Europe and, unlike Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7 doesn't have martial arts content to bring in genre fans. However, Chow's name and the cute titular alien could help the film to some respectable grosses, especially once word gets out that the film is as wry and entertaining for grown-ups as it is for children.
Kung Fu Hustle's worldwide gross just stopped short of $100m and CJ7 will certainly give it a run for its money.
Chow's skills as a comic film-maker are put to the test here, but he comes out with flying colours. His story is fundamentally mawkish - even more so than ET because the boy whose life is changed by a little alien friend lives in extreme poverty - but Chow never once indulges in corniness. Indeed, whenever tragedy appears to be looming, Chow toys with it for a moment or two before dismissing it with a a visual gag or a joke. His principal protagonists - the boy, his father and the alien stranded by his spaceship - are all deliciously deadpan and upbeat, and never once are we invited to pity them.
The director's biggest asset in keeping the film so light is his leading actor, or in this case actress, since Chow cast a nine year-old girl Xu Jiao as the young boy in the film after a year-long search all over China which saw 10,000 kids audition for the part. Xu is delightful as Dicky Chow, the trouble-prone but sunny child at the centre of the story.
Dicky is the son of an extremely poor construction worker Ti (Chow) who slaves away all day so that Dicky can attend an elite private school. However, Dicky is teased mercilessly at school because of his dirty face, tattered clothes and ragged gym shoes. Even the teachers look down on him, apart from the sympathetic Miss Yuen (Zhang).
Ti and Dicky live in a rundown room in a derelict building and crunch cockroaches for fun during supper; Ti searches rubbish dumps by night to find clothes and items for his son, and one night, he unwittingly disturbs an alien spacecraft which immediately flees, leaving a mysterious green orb apparently with no purpose which he takes home for Dicky.
Once home, however, the orb transforms into a furry pet (with green legs) which Dicky dubs CJ7 (after a robot toy called CJ1 which is popular with the other boys at school). Although he fantasizes about CJ7 helping him with his studies and sports classes at school, he soon realizes that the pet doesn't have the powers he imagines. However, it does impress his schoolmates, and things are looking up for Dicky until his father has an accident at work.
The comic setpieces here are classic Chow - a fight between two oversized students at school, Dicky's fantasy versus the reality, the return visit of the spaceship - but he also generates a touching rapport between Dicky and Ti whose relationship has its fair share of rows.
If the computer-generated effects of CJ7 (by Hong Kong-based Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design Co Ltd) aren't as polished as in a Hollywood movie, they are good enough to make the creature lovable. What's the betting that CJ7 toys will be a big-selling item in Asian toy stores this year.
Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia
China Film Group
North America distribution
Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Releasing International
Chui Po Chu
Han San Ping
Tsang Kan Cheong
Sandy Shaw Lai-King
Fung Chih Chiang
Director of photography
Poon Hang Sang
Lee Sheung Ching
Fun Min Hun
Han Yong Wua