While it may be familiar in concept to many of Stephen Chow’s films, no more so than his directorial outings, CJ7 is about as close to “normal” as he’s come. Certainly his films are approachable, but until now most of them have still retained his unique pun-like stylings and out there comedy routines. It’s not the quintessential Chow movie by any means, first and foremost in that it doesn’t strictly adhere to the usual ‘From zero to hero/rags to riches’ pattern. The actor doesn’t place himself centre stage; doesn’t have much of an invested love interest, nor pile on the nonsensical gags. Instead Chow has obviously decided to make an all out kids movie, which is perfectly fine as he’s churned out a rather sweet and simplistic tale for the whole family to enjoy.
Ti (Stephen Chow Sing Chi) labours hard at a construction site day by day, so that he may afford to send his young son Dicky (Xu Jiao) to a nice school. Together they live in a dilapidated apartment which is poorly sheltered from the sweltering summer heat, and not even Ti can afford a decent cooling fan or fresh food. All he wishes is for his son to get a good education and grow up to become the success his father wished he himself could have been. Although poor, Ti strongly believes in respecting others, no matter their place in the world and trying your absolute best at everything is the most important thing you can do; wisdom he regularly imparts on his son. But try as he might to follow his father’s advice, Dicky finds himself struggling with his studies and being alienated from the majority of his class mates. His tatty clothing and lack of fanciful possessions usually sees him being teased by those from richer backgrounds. More recently the children are going crazy over the latest toy fad CJ1: A robotic dog which has become the talk of the town. When Ti can’t afford to buy one for Dicky, his son runs off in a strop, in turn making his father feel hopelessly guilty.
One night, while scouring the local scrap yard for clothes and accessories, Ti comes across a strange little orb which he immediately suspects is a children’s toy. Taking it home to Dicky, neither he or his son can figure out just what it is, but Dicky bares with it and takes it to school. He’s still teased as it seems to be nothing more than a bouncy ball, but when he returns home later that evening something happens. The ball eventually hatches a little creature, who they presume is a magic alien toy, and soon Dicky finds himself with a new friend, which he calls CJ7. Now he believes that CJ7 is the solution to his problems, and sets out to try and use its powers for his own benefit. But things are never that easy; little CJ is a bit of a tearaway and it’s not long before Dicky learns some hard facts about life.
Stephen Chow’s script, then, may be a somewhat light affair, but he’s managed to create a nice, compact story which clocks in at barely 85 minutes in length. It’s a tad predictable of course, though in its favour it never fully turns its characters into something they’re not. Chow toys with the idea of bestowing riches upon Ti and Dicky and having everything turn out rosy in the end; getting the girl and becoming the most popular person in town as expected, but here he’s all too quick to take it away and focus primarily on a simple message driven feature, which soon becomes clear enough with the well played father and son dynamic. Chow places all of his faith in co-star Xu Jiao, playing his son Dicky, and even she seems to have a few of Chow’s mannerisms down pat, thus making for a curious lead replacement of sorts. It’s not hard to become enamoured by Xu Jiao and her character’s plight. Whilst Stephen Chow turns up once more as a bum with good intentions, and has often been relatable to in the past, it’s Dicky who we ultimately empathise with here. As a child, Dicky is just like most of us once were: wanting things we couldn’t really have; dealing with the daily school grind and sometimes finding things a little too difficult to bare, while at the same time not yet understanding the importance of adult responsibility and the difficulties in maintaining a family home where money doesn’t grow on trees. Chow does well to highlight the naivety of adolescence and neatly juxtaposes this ideal between child and adult. None of his characters are perfect human beings, and it’s the flaws inherent to each that allows his message to resonate all the more. But by allowing a predominantly young cast to run the gauntlet he places an interesting perspective on things, which he hadn’t explored to any great extent in the past. Dicky and other small characters such as the adorable Hu Qian Lin as Fanny, Huang Lei as bully Johnny and Han Yong Hua as Maggie serve up a diverse assortment of personalities for kids to identify with, while the superbly portrayed teachers (Lee Sheung Ching’s Mr. Cao and P.E. teacher Fung Min Hun) provide strong chemistry and humorous antagonistic qualities and carry some of the film‘s best scenes. Naturally Kitty Zhang’s Miss Yuen is little more than a link between Ti and his son, and not surprisingly is underused, but it seems apt in regards to what Stephen Chow is trying to ultimately achieve.
Even CJ7 itself its merely a device in complementing the director’s beliefs. Yes, this is a science fiction/fantasy film, CJ7 can do magical things and it’s impossibly cute to boot, but there’s no question as to what its purpose is. As Dicky only really sees it as a means to cheat his way through life it’s abundantly clear as to where the film is headed with its moral sentiments, but it doesn’t feel overly forceful on account of how well grounded it feels and just how well realised and entertaining the little alien bugger is. CJ7 is undoubtedly the cutest little thing on four legs and a technical marvel to behold. Chow and his technicians have created a lively and expressive creature which undoubtedly carries the burden of delivering the film’s funniest moments - Dicky’s dream sequence cum reality being the real highlight - with the special effects naturally belonging up there alongside Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, showing Chow as one of the few directors in Hong Kong who continually tries to challenge the medium‘s capabilities. It’s impossible not to like CJ7 and its quirky personality, and as the film reaches its climax and even intersperses some darker moments it serves as a testament to Chow’s talented team that the little green dog is able to stir our emotions quite so successfully. CJ7 isn’t quite as rapturous as any of Chow’s previously directed films however; there aren‘t any real classic moments to be had from the creator himself, but then the humour is rightfully aimed toward children, so the reliance on a cute and fluffy angle seems more than appropriate.
Presented anamorphically at 2.40:1, CJ7 is given a pleasant, progressive transfer. Colours are vibrant, particularly during outdoor sequences, while contrast and black depths remain wholly acceptable. The image overall has a certain softness and the addition of edge enhancement certainly doesn’t help any. Aliasing is also an issue, but otherwise this is a stable looking transfer with no unsightly compression artefacts.
For sound we get a choice of Mandarin and Cantonese 5.1 Surround, and a 5.1 Thai track. CJ7 is primarily shot in Mandarin, with mainly Chow (and a couple of familiar supporting players such as Lam Tze Chung) being dubbed over. Of course this means that you’re missing out on his fine delivery if you’re already well aware of his work, but the mandarin dub isn’t half bad, at times sounding like Chow himself. You can switch to Cantonese if you simply want to hear his own voice, but I’d recommend sticking with Mandarin, as the children’s performances especially are a lot of fun. As for the surround sound itself, it’s as good as we’ve come to expect. CJ7 has a lot of talky moments, which the central channels handle crystal clear, but it also has a few set pieces, which make full use of the rear channels. The action is typically elaborate, with nice directionality, while the film’s signature tune from Boney M gets a lot of love as well with a strong amount of bass.
Optional English subtitles of the yellow variety are provided, and these are of the usual high standard from Columbia. No grammatical errors or timing issues and they seem to translate everything well, though given that there’s nothing too out of the ordinary here that shouldn’t have been difficult anyway.
CJ7 feels like a bit of a departure for Stephen Chow, and dare I say even more of a mature one. It’s certainly a fun film and despite never reaching the hilarious heights of some of his previous work it does have a few laugh out loud moments. Xu Jiao and her young co-stars are undoubtedly the heart and soul of the feature, while little CJ is an impressive diversion to keep momentum going. Once again Stephen Chow delivers the goods; an effortlessly assured director who knows all too well what to give his audience.
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