Thursday, March 06, 2008

CJ7 3/7

In many respects, Hong Kong actor-director Stephen Chow is the closest thing to a post-modern Charlie Chaplin in contemporary cinema. There is definitely an element of the Little Tramp in Ti, Chow’s character in his latest film, CJ7, opening tomorrow (trailer here).

Ti is a widowed, barely competent construction worker, struggling to send his son, Dicky Chow played by Xu Jiao, to an exclusive private school. While young Chow is surrounded by wealth at school, he literally lives in a hovel and wears stitched together clothes. Most of his father’s shopping entails foraging at the local dump. It is there that Ti finds a substitute for the CJ1, the robotic toy dog his son covets. The rather nondescript toy he unearths and dubs CJ7 eventually morphs into an E.T. style alien that seems to have some sort of mysterious power.

Despite Chow’s enormous Hong Kong box office success, he plays a supporting role to the Dicky Chow character. Until the CJ7 arrives, the young Chow lives an almost Dickensian life. He is bullied by rich, mean-spirited classmates, and the faculty treats him little better. With the exception of the compassionate Miss Yuen, played by Kitty Zhang, his teachers are cold, bordering on the outright hostile.

The alien CJ7 is aggressively cute. Chow acknowledges a debt of inspiration to Spielberg’s E.T., and one can also see dash of Gremlins thrown in as well. Unfortunately, that Spielberg influence also manifests itself in a marked sentimentality. Indeed, Chow’s hyper-kinetic Kung Fu Hustle also displayed a similar sensibility at times. In CJ7 it is all the more pronounced.

As a filmmaker, Chow deserves credit for throwing himself into projects with total enthusiasm and honesty, and CJ7 is no exception. Yet the film hits an odd series of notes. The whimsical alien scenes would skew towards a younger audience, but young Chow faces some starkly dramatic crises which could upset sensitive children.

Arguably, CJ7 is the antithesis of City of Men, in that it celebrates the sacrifices Ti makes to raise his son, refusing to use their abject poverty as an excuse for failure. Whether you enjoy the film or not depends on how you feel about cute aliens and precocious kids zipping across the screen. The trailer is actually a fair representative sampling. CJ7 opens in New York tomorrow at the Landmark Sunshine.