An interstellar dog befriends a Hong Kong boy
BY JASON BLAIR
CJ7 (Cheung Gong 7 hou): Directed by Stephen Chow. Written by Stephen Chow, Chi Keung Fung, Vincent Kok, Sandy Shaw and Kan-Cheung Tsang. Cinematography, Hang-Sang Poon. Music, Raymond Wong. Starring Stephen Chow, Jiao Xu and Kitty Zhang Yugi. Sony Pictures Classics, 2008. PG. 86 minutes.
Originally called A Hope, the unfortunately titled CJ7 was rechristened as a spoof on the Chinese space program, an in-joke that used to be a signature for director Stephen Chow. Chow’s early films were provincial and clearly handmade, requiring an awareness of Chinese customs to be enjoyed. The heart was always there, but it wasn’t until Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle that Chow’s budgets caught up with his imagination. Both films deserved the worldwide audiences they enjoyed, but geographic progress doesn’t ensure artistic progress, raising the question of whether CJ7 would equal Chow’s recent work. If CJ7 is a mild disappointment artistically, with neither a cohesive style nor focused plot, it is also a sweet and purposeful tale that genuinely defies categorization. CJ7 is a children’s film whose themes may be lost on many children, not only because it’s filmed in Mandarin and Cantonese, but because it refuses to conform to the conventions established by the very films it seeks to emulate, such as E.T.
|Dicky (Jiao Xu) meets CJ7|
Poor, proud and principled: This is the world of Ti (played by Chow), a construction worker, and Dicky (Jiao Xu), his plucky young son. Together they live in a half-demolished home so that Ti can continue to send Dicky to private school. As CJ7 opens, Dicky’s at a tipping point: His shoes are so worn he’s not permitted to exercise, his teacher so detests him that he won’t allow physical contact and his nemesis makes tormenting Dicky a daily ritual. What Dicky needs is for something good to happen, something magical to reinforce his father’s emphasis on simple decency. Dicky is essentially an alien among his schoolmates, a fact his father can’t understand, which makes what happens next so oddly, even wonderfully appropriate: While scavenging at the garbage dump, Ti finds an alien toy dog for Dicky. Actually, he finds something resembling a round seedless grape. What emerges from the orb is CJ7, a Shih Tzu puppy with a green rubber body that, among other talents, is a very gifted excrement machine.
What impresses me about CJ7 is how little else the puppy can do, how few useful skills it really has, which naturally prompts Dicky to reject it. This major twist to CJ7 — there’s another, not to worry — turns out to reveal its subtler themes, including an emphasis on everyday heroism and loving people for who they are, not who we want them to be. Of course, the dog eventually reveals a singular ability, one that will change Ti’s and Dicky’s lives forever. But it’s never revealed to either of them directly. That’s one of the many little pleasures of CJ7, another of which was the revelation, while researching the film, that the actor who plays Dicky is in fact a young girl. Jiao Xu, who’s never acted before, would be a star if this were an American film, so effortless is her performance, so steady is her comic timing.
More than once while watching CJ7, I was reminded of Shallow Hal, that well-intentioned comedy the Farrelly brothers have yet to recover from. Like Hal, CJ7 is a comedy with a big heart — so big, in fact, that it stifles the laughs somewhat. As everyone from Aristotle to Andrew Dice Clay has demonstrated, comedy is the result of people behaving badly. There is plenty of that in CJ7, but perhaps not enough to elevate the comedy in this unique sci-fi comedy film.
CJ7 opens Friday, April 18, at the Bijou.