Judge Ryan Keefer's interpretation of cute is a cuddly new teddy bear riding a soft pillowy cloud.
Our review of CJ7, published August 6th, 2008, is also available.
Ever wonder why nobody thought to call Flubber a poorly performed blunder, even though it seems to derive from the word "flub"? Neither have I, but I needed some way to start this off.
To paraphrase the introduction of one of the supplements of CJ7: after Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, writer/director Stephen Chow set out on his most difficult outing yet; he made a children's film. Should the folks who've enjoyed his previous films rightfully enjoy this one?
Facts of the Case
Chow co-wrote, produced, and directed the film, and also stars as Ti, a father who works at a construction site. He puts every penny he can into a private school for his son Dicky (Xu Jiao). Ti's wife died several years ago, and he and Dicky live in squalor. While Dicky goes to school, he is picked on by the rich kids and occasionally embarrassed by some of the teachers at the school. One night Ti, who is looking for replacement shoes for Dicky, runs across an alien satellite that has been reported in the news for its various appearances throughout China. The satellite leaves behind a small creature, one that Dicky takes in and names CJ7, inspired by the toy he liked but Ti wasn't able to afford. CJ7 is cute and cuddly, but he's also able to do things that Ti and Dicky aren't able to imagine, and it makes a difference in both of their lives.
I'm not entirely familiar with the previous works of Chow, but he has this knack for getting the viewer immersed into the film rather quickly, either with the story or with the characters. I stopped the film and basically told my wife that she had to watch it with me. It's the type of film that she would enjoy, but Jiao seems to be a 21st century version of a Norman Rockwell character; an early scene at school where the kids are asked what they would like to be when they grow up not only defines each of them (along with their teacher Mr. Cao), but also helps to show us why Dicky is so adorable.
Ti is also a very well-meaning man who simply doesn't have the means to give the Dicky the kind of life he would like, but they both are aware of their circumstances and for the most part are comfortable with them, they are still hindered by the lack of a support system from others. Ti's boss is cruel and abrasive, as are the bullies that Dickie has to endure. While they try to do what they can to overcome them, it's still a heavy obstacle to surpass. A scene where Ti talks to a female teacher named Miss Yuen is shot rather subtly by Chow. On one side of the school's fence, Yuen is surrounded by lush schoolyards and buildings; the other side of the fence shows Ti, with a Mercedes over his shoulder in the distance, but you know the bicycle is his mode of transportation. The two are rather effectively shown separated by the fence; it's much like many fences that Ti and Dicky deal with each day and struggle to transcend.
From a performance standpoint, everyone does very well in their roles, including the most important one: Jiao as Dicky. Jiao is a girl playing a boy's role, and she handles it exceptionally well. Her heart and optimism really shows in the part, and you'd never know that he was actually a she—unless you looked in the supplemental material that is. Chow's also impressive as the loving father; as a director, he hits the right emotional notes in most areas and doesn't use the computer effects for humans in the same manner of his last two films. While the actual CJ7 character looks like a lot of other Eastern-inspired cartoon and video game characters, the effects are convincing enough; I mean, when it cries, you start to do the same. Those three are the focus of the bulk of the film, and their heavy lifting pays off.
Technically, the 2.40:1 widescreen presentation of CJ7 uses the AVC MPEG-4 codec and looks better than you'd expect from a foreign film. Image detail is consistent through most of the film, and background depth is present and clear through the feature. There's some softness from time to time, but I guess I'd be expecting it from a foreign film. There are three TrueHD soundtracks, and in listening to the original Mandarin track, I was surprised with just how much low-end fidelity appears in the film. The subwoofer engages early on when the school bullies pick on a girl at the school who is slightly "big boned" and goes from there. The directional effects were fairly non-existent, but the dialogue sounds clear through the center channel and doesn't waver in strength. You can pretty much set your volume at one level and be comfortable with it.
From a supplements perspective, the disc has got quite a few features. Chow and Chi Chung Lam, who plays Ti's boss in the film, reunite for a commentary. They seem to contribute somewhat sparingly and are more jocular than informative, but it's an interesting enough commentary to listen to. There's a set top game that allows you to aim a rocket into space so that CJ7 can get home, but if you're over the age of five or six, this game gets boring rather quick. "The Story of CJ7" is nothing much past a usual making-of look at the film, where Chow discusses its intent, while the cast and crew talk about working with him. He says in the piece that a lot of boys in the school are actually played by young girls; aside from that and the conceptual details about how CJ7 should look, those are the only real surprising or useful pieces of information in the film. The television special for the film is about 10 minutes longer than the first featurette and appears to be more Western-focused, with a bit more on-set footage, although no subtitles to explain what's going on, other than Chow apparently summing up something on set. There's more discussion here on CJ7's creation, and the effects are compared relative to other films that Chow has worked on, and particular scenes are recalled, too. "Anatomy of a Scene" covers the bathroom scenes with Dicky and CJ7, showing test footage of the creature and rehearsals and working with Jiao is shown also. "How to Bully a Bully" and "How to Make a Lollipop" are Western-produced quick hits on a couple of parts of the film with "CJ7 Profiles" looks at the likes and dislikes of each character. Trailers for this film, along with Persepolis, Men In Black, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spider Man 3, Water Horse, Monster House, Surf's Up, Open Season, Married Life, and The Jane Austen Book Club wrap up the package on this BD-Live enabled disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ti frequently tells Dicky to study hard and not to lie or get in fights. I think that this message gets forgotten by the end of the film, but still as an American, you've got to get past the whole issue that the boy lives in what is essentially rubbish, and no concerned faculty member or parent calls the Chinese equivalent of Social Services? But since this is a family film, the conventional ending is probably the happy one. Still, I would have been curious to see what happened if some other choices had been made, as the film's last act feels a little bit tacked on.
Stephen Chow continues to impress as a filmmaker with unique creativity, and he remains one of the better Asian film voices that not a lot of people have heard about. I encourage everyone to take a leap of faith on CJ7, as the film is all kinds of cute, warm, and fuzzy, with some nods to Chow's comic sensibility and some surprisingly touching lines of dialogue recited by capable performers both old and young. The technical capabilities are solid and the extras are decent, so why not give CJ7 a spin?
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• Audio Commentary with Cast and Crew
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