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CJ7 is the new film from Chinese filmmaker Stephen Chow, the man who brought us the unabashedly silly comedies Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle. I am not sure who is expected to turn out for this latest effort, a family film about a tiny alien creature that falls to Earth to enrich the lives of a poverty-stricken father and son. Very young children will likely find the broad humor and wish-fulfillment amusing, but anyone past the age of ten is probably going to find it a snooze. The only problem is, what grade schooler goes to see subtitled Chinese films?
From the opening scene of CJ7, it's clear that Chow's influences are firmly rooted in the 1980s. Cheesy synth music underscores a montage of a man's hand patching holes in a pair of shoes, shot with soft lights in the manner of a sports movie. Perhaps Chow would have been better sticking with that idea, creating another vision quest along the lines of Shaolin Soccer; instead, CJ7 is like a hybrid of E.T. and Short Circuit.
The first act of the movie slogs by for an agonizingly slow thirty minutes, as Chow sets up the family dynamic of his comedy. He casts himself as Ti, the downtrodden but sweet widower who works himself to death in order to send his son Dicky (Jiao Xu) to a private school. Like so many film fathers before him, he wants to give his son a better life by creating opportunities he never had. In an extreme case of overselling, Chow puts the duo in an abandoned building full of cockroaches and creates multiple scenarios where we have it hammered home that neither of these guys can do anything right.
After seeing the rather unimpressive robot dog of a fellow classmate, a toy called CJ1, Dicky throws a tantrum to try to get a robodog of his own. Of course, Ti can't afford to buy one, and when he finds a weird glowing ball at the garbage dump, he brings it home to his offspring and tells him it's an even cooler toy, the latest thing, a CJ7! Unbeknownst to both of them, it's actually an alien creature left behind by a U.F.O. When Dicky finally activates his new playmate, fun should inevitably ensue.
Which it does, but only intermittently. Chow has always gotten by on slapstick and an undeniable romantic demeanor, and when he goes for either in CJ7, he manages to make some of the scenes hit the mark. The inevitable and syrupy love affair between Ti and the teacher Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang Yugi) may be easy to spot a mile off, but it's syrup that is also easy to swallow. Likewise, when Dicky indulges in some super-athletic dream sequences and gets into digitally enhanced kung-fu battles, CJ7 should induce a smile or two.
The rest of the film, however, falls flat. Amidst the cuteness is an off-putting mean streak, where every character indulges in their worst impulse and beats the living hell out of the adorable little CJ7. (The character is actually pretty cute. He's got a big furball head and a gelatinous body, and he makes funny faces and speaks in a Mogwai-like gibberish.) It doesn't help that Dicky, who is supposed to be the hero, is one of the meanest of all. This disturbing cruelty makes one wonder why CJ7 sticks around and lends a hand in the strange third act. I wouldn't help these jerks who tried to smoosh me at every turn, even if I was from another planet.
(If you'll indulge a spoiler-filled tangent, there is actually a bizarre case to be made for CJ7 as a Christian allegory. The creature constantly turns the other cheek when treated with disdain, and his good nature ultimately wins over all of his enemies. In the end, he gives his life to save another, and then is all but resurrected. I seriously doubt that this was intentional, but 7 is an important religious number and in China, they say their last names first and their first names last. Is CJ7 an acronym for Christ Jesus 7?)
Even at a mercifully short 88-minutes, CJ7 feels like it goes on forever. I rarely would make a case for dubbing a foreign film into English, but it seems to me that keeping CJ7 in the original Chinese cuts this film off from the only audience I could see being interested in it. Then again, maybe if your kids are so young they can't read anyway, they might benefit for watching the movie like it's an alien cartoon where the words being said aren't all that important anyway. Maybe they'll make more sense of it that way, because as a remotely functional adult, I was nonplussed. Maybe "CJ" stands for "Confuse Jamie as to why he sat through the whole thing."
Because, for the life of me, I can't figure it out.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.