EmptyHONG KONG -- A comic trio formed by a poor workman, his son and his alien pet drive the story of "CJ7," a hyperactive, wishful-thinking special effects fantasy suitable for family outings. It is the long-awaited brainchild of Stephen Chow, the comedian-writer-director who pioneered the unique Hong Kong genre of mo lei tau (nonsensical) comedy in the early 1990s.
Despite Chow's self-professed desire to salute "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and oblique borrowings from Japanese anime "Doraemon," the sci-fi classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" springs foremost to mind as Chow's one-of-a-kind magnetic screen persona seems to have been abducted by aliens, who replaced him with a pod spouting moral platitudes and CGI-enhanced emotions.
A joint effort by Chow's Star Overseas and Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, "CJ7" has worldwide release ambitions; it bows stateside Friday. Even with Chow's trademark smart-ass Cantonese neologisms and Hong Kong's ineffable local color filtered out while proficiently rendered visual effects stand in for gags, Chow's strong Asian fan base is still flocking to the theaters. Convincing a North American audience more familiar with Jackie Chan and Jet Li and more likely to prefer Chow's more exotic and action-packed "Shaolin Soccer" and "Kung Fu Hustle" won't be so easy, though.
This is Chow's first directorial work shot entirely in China, but geographic and cultural character look fuzzy. He plays Ti, a construction laborer who pays through the nose to send his only son Dicky (Xu Jiao) to an elite school. Dicky's street urchin looks make him a target for bullying. Only his teacher, Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang), shows some kindness.
Dicky wants his classmate's cyber toy CJ1, but the impoverished Chow finds him a scrap-yard substitute that he names CJ7. The florescent green blob morphs into a creature with a fluffy mane and a bouncy, squishy torso. Dicky dreams of impressing his classmates with alien high-tech gizmos but ends up thoroughly humiliated. However, when an accident happens, CJ7 reveals its hidden powers.
The first half-hour depicts father-son relations with a mischievous charm reminiscent of Chow's early films. Xu, a girl who impersonates the boy Dicky, is the one who holds the film together. A natural in front of the camera, she has a wealth of facial expressions even in solo scenes with a computer-generated figure. Zhang, who wears a cheongsam tight enough to moonlight in a hostess bar, never stirs as a love interest.
"CJ7" revels in a cartoon-like depiction of abject poverty with a priceless scene where cockroach swatting is an alternative to PlayStation. However, such social issues as education, employment and inequality of wealth are glossed over by slogan-like mottos of being poor but virtuous. The storybook ending is artificial and offers no antidote to Ti and Dicky's problems.
Sony Pictures Classics
Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia/the Star Overseas/China Film Group
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenwriters: Stephen Chow, Vincent Kok, Tsang Kan-cheong, Lam Fung, Sandy Shaw, Fung Chih-chiang
Producers: Stephen Chow, Chui Po-chu, Han Sanping
Director of photography: Poon Hang-sang
Production designer: Oliver Wong
Music: Raymond Wong
Co-producers Vincent Kok, Connie Wong
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Angie Lam
Ti: Stephen Chow
Dicky: Xu Jiao
Miss Yuen: Kitty Zhang
Mr. Cao: Lee Shing-cheung
Building Site Foreman: Lam Tze-chung
Running time -- 88 minutes
MPAA rating: PG