CJ7: ET Phone Hong Kong

Tamer f/x and a cute little gremlin in Stephen Chow's new one

Something of a departure for Hong Kong's reigning master of special-effects slapstick Stephen Chow, CJ7 is a father-son fable transparently modeled on Steven Spielberg's ET. That the movie is less cloying or moralistic than it might have been is attributable to its unsentimental representation of childhood alienation and the intermittently grotesque CGI effects.

Chow plays a single dad who works as a day laborer on a construction site to send his young son Dicky to an elite elementary school—where the kid is ridiculed by teachers as well as classmates for his raggedy clothes, poor personal hygiene, low test scores, and paucity of possessions. In his effort to get Dicky an expensive toy, Dad rummages through the garbage dump and inadvertently brings home an extraterrestrial left by a flying saucer (possibly en route to Jia Zhangke's Still Life). The "super space dog," as Dicky calls it, is a fluffy-headed, round-eyed dingbot with a flexible antenna and a stretchy, star-shaped body. Nearly as adorable as the pre-demonic gremlins in Joe Dante's gloss on the ET myth, the creature is also mysteriously unpredictable, acting out Dicky's schoolyard fantasies one day and failing him miserably the next.

CJ7 lacks the all-out f/x delirium of Chow's Shaolin Soccer or Kung Fu Hustle, movies that, in their funhouse distortions, are the closest contemporary equivalents to Frank Tashlin's '50s comedies. Like all of the writer-director-star's films, however, CJ7 celebrates the underdog, and a few Chinese critics have managed to read it as a political satire of the new Hong Kong. Dicky and his father are both social pariahs, though hardly noble ones. What gives the scenario some needed zing is the dad's stupidity and the kid's brattiness: He's naturalistically ungrateful, demanding, and—having apparently inherited the typical Chow character's propensity for motor-mouthed ranting—strident. Dicky not only has yelling arguments with his father but in one shocking sequence waterboards his pet. (Maybe not so shocking—the super space dog has left the cutest li'l swirly turd in his hand.)

That the boy is actually and extremely well played by an eight-year-old girl, Xu Jiao, gives the movie an additional gimmick. As with all of Chow's effects, this one gathers additional force for being presented in an impeccably lit and carefully composed world—it's the directorial equivalent of a deadpan.

 
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