Hong Kong superstar director-actor Stephen Chow takes a detour from his anarchic, martial-arts comedies and winds up in the sentimental cinema-land of very cute kids and furry toys.
Most American audiences know Chow from 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle, which gleefully sent up the genre with over-the-top violence and plenty of silliness, or from the director’s delirious blend of dogma-laden martial arts drama and hackneyed tale of triumphant sports underdogs in Shaolin Soccer (2001). Chow even gave his films their own genre identifier -- mo lei tau, or nonsense comedy.
There are splashes of goofy in Chow’s latest family-oriented film, CJ7, but it’s biggest touchstone is ET and its various imitators that pair up a neglected child with a new best friend that’s also a space alien, robot or talking [insert animal here] with special powers.
Little Dicky and his dirt-poor laborer dad Ti (Chow) live in one-room squalor in Hong Kong. Ti slaves so Dicky can be humiliated daily at a fancy grammar school stocked with present-day bullies and future go-getters. (If only his classmates knew that Dicky was portrayed by a girl, actress Jiao Xu.)
Still, Dicky wants what the rich kids have, and that includes a CJ1, a robotic toy dog. His whining — Dicky is adorable but pretty bratty — drives Dad to the dump where a “better” toy is found. It’s an odd green ball that unbeknownst to Ti has fallen from a space ship.
No sooner than you can say “MAC and me,” does the ball morph into a burbling dog-like creature that Dicky dubs “CJ7.” It has a green gel-like body, the furry face of a Brussels griffon, enormous saucer eyes and a glowing, wagging antenna sprouting from its head. It’s sooooooooooooo cute (and so ready for its close-up at Toys-R-Us).
While older kids may enjoy CJ7’s broad comedic moments, Chow’s film is too much of a mish-mash of tones and styles to rope in the whole family. It’s not above being mean-spirited — one of Dicky’s classmates is a giantess of a lonely girl that Chow mocks by filming her from below like Godzilla and adding stomping noises to her walk. But if kids are mean (and they are), CJ7 just as quickly punts for a gooey, only-in-the-movies resolution.
Nods to Italian neo-realism — in one scene, father and son ape a well-known sidewalk squat from The Bicycle Thief — rest uneasily alongside scenes of poop machine-gun-fired from the ass of a green space-dog, Dicky’s over-the-top mistreatment at school and a magical last-reel act that fires poop all over reality. Likewise, any exposition of the pair’s poverty feels simply clichéd and cosmetic, a construct simply to hang not-very-clever jokes on. (There’s a failed bit about waiting until after dinner before crushing invading cockroaches.)
Those seeking Chow’s distinctive action style will find just smatterings. At one point, the CJ7 dog goes into martial-arts mode. Chow also has the school kids dabble in gimmicked fighting (minor blows send bodies flying in slow motion), and the alternately triumphant and aggrieved Dicky frequently adopts the exaggerated pantomime of a chop-socky hero.
But the usually frenetic Chow takes a back seat to cute; he plays straight man to the mouthy kid and his glowing, purring dog, while unconvincingly (and literally) repeating the story’s lesson: “We’re poor, but we don’t cheat, we don’t steal, we don’t fight,” etc. etc.
That’s fine, but the take-away moral of this disappointing, muddled movie seems to be: For a better life, put your faith in super-cute, magical space aliens. In Cantonese, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., April 18. Harris