Off the shelf; it’s a Sony.
It’s not after every trip to the local video store that I leave pondering global marketing, cross-cultural hybridization, computer generated aliens and region coded DVD players. I was recently, however, pleasantly surprised to have seen a copy of Stephen Chow’s CJ7 (a local release, not an import) propped up amongst the latest plethora of Hollywood’s finest – a dim, yet shining, beacon. It seemed to me that this film was once destined to carry on Kung Fu Hustle’s great success, but, alas, without a local release in cinemas it failed to even elicit a response from Dave and Margie’s oft-raised brows. After a fleeting foray into the spotlight, HK cinema once again had resumed its position on the back shelf of Australia’s consciousness. Ironically, Chow’s CJ7 is rife with Western sensibilities –- essentially it is a homage to Steven Spielberg’s ET –- and in many ways branches away from his usual canto-centric humour, offering 88 mild minutes of fun for just about any audience.
Despite the worst snowstorm in 50 years, CJ7 raked in 28 million Yuan ($3.9 million) in China over its first day and a half, and on its first day in Hong Kong earned HK$3 million ($385,000), breaking non-holiday box-office records. Stephen Chow’s extreme popularity extends beyond his native city and Mainland China, to Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan but -– much to my dismay –- not to Australia. Eighteen months ago, with anticipation fueled by forum-fandom and a taste for conflicting rumours in the media, I arrived at Chinatown Cinema, 90 minutes before screen time, fully expecting excitement en mass relative to that seen across the globe. It wasn’t until the lights went out that I fully accepted that CJ7’s Australian premiere would be screened to a half-empty Chinatown Cinema. Had Stephen Chow relinquished his iron hand on our Western shores? After Kung Fu Hustle’s whirlwind tour of suburban multiplexes –- achieving one of the most widely spread releases of a foreign language film both here and in the US –- it seemed that Chow’s popularity would soon match his predecessors Jackie and Bruce. Hell, I even half-expected him to team up with a socially acceptable racist and exploit the ’80s buddy cop franchise, a la Rush Hour. But it wasn’t to be –- CJ7 slid underneath the radar. For existing Chow fans, however, it is an enjoyable film and a new direction for the ageing director.
CJ7 is essentially a kids’ fantasy film that references classic blockbuster sci-fi, like Encounters of the Third Kind and ET. As strange as it may seem, Stephen Chow has often said Spielberg is his favourite director. The film tells the story of Ti (Chow), a poor and humble widower who struggles to provide for his son Dicky (Xu Jiao) outside of squandering his entire paycheck on Dicky’s private education. When Ti unknowingly brings home an alien as a substitute toy for Dicky, animators get to work and so begins the story of father and son, right and wrong, rich and poor, life and death. The well-rounded moral narrative replaces the customary absurdity of Chow’s past films. Whilst it is exciting to see a great director branching out, the shift into family friendly entertainment will no doubt surprise and, perhaps, underwhelm some Chow fans.
CJ7 lacks a certain spark found in Chow’s earlier films, particularly From Beijing with Love (1994) and Forbidden City Cop (1996). In his earlier work, Chow’s brand of bizarre comedy and story telling was so unique it was named mo lei tau, which loosely translates to “makes no sense”. If I were to say CJ7 avoids the absurdity of some of Chow’s earlier work, a number of ridiculous scenarios from the film instantly pop into mind and remind me that it is simply a milder offering. I guess it’s a bit like that band you love: their low-budget EP captures it all, but when they sign with a major label their soul is often diluted if not destroyed.
Despite lacking some of Chow’s signature edge, CJ7 consolidates a number of new formulas in his work. For instance, Stephen Chow’s character does not fully appear until 10-20 minutes into the film; a prolonged anticipation of his entrance has become a new fixture in his work. There are also a few subtle (and extremely obvious) references to Kung Fu Hustle, which will make those who notice feel like an insider. Clearly, the most obvious and consistent stylistic feature of Chow’s last three films is his fearless embrace of CGI.
Embracing state-of-the-art digital effects and computer animation has been and remains a tool in the realization of Chow’s imagination. CJ7 even exceeds the fantastical feat of his past two films, as one of the film’s leading characters is in fact animated -– it’s sort of like a 21st century Who Framed Roger Rabbit. If CGI gets a bad rap for its unnecessary excess in Hollywood, Hong Kong and Korea, it should also be accepted as a valuable tool in telling stories that greatly exceed the bounds of reality. After all, we’ve come a long away from those ridiculous little robots tailing the smell of Han Solo’s unwashed underwear. Digital effects and computer animation are a fixture in the new cinema of Hong Kong, and are in many ways revitalising a dwindling industry.
Finding faults in CJ7 was, for me, perhaps inevitable because of great anticipation following Kung Fu Hustle. I guess deep down, I’m still upset that Australia missed out on this one -– God knows I would have loved this film as a kid. If you haven’t seen his earlier work watch that first, but if it’s $2 Tuesday at your local and it’s between Stephen Chow and Matt Damon, let CJ7 be the one.