Monday, February 4, 2008

CJ The Extra-Terrestrial

What's Chinese New Year without a movie from Jackie Chan or Stephen Chow, right? But lately, ever since the international success of Shaolin Soccer, every Stephen Chow movie is an event. Rightly so, because he really is the Asian King Of Comedy, and it's starting to look like he can do no wrong.

With his new sci-fi comedy, CJ7, there are little missteps along the way, but otherwise, it's another very watchable, very entertaining movie from him. What will strike you immediately is how much of a tribute to the Hollywood sci-fi genre it is, what with its opening score sounding very much 80s, the era in which we had films like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Batteries Not Included, and many others. It was a time when we had hopeful sci-fi fables like E.T. and also the darker side of alien beings such as John Carpenter's remake of The Thing.

CJ7 pays tribute to the colourful hopeful spectacle of friendly alien beings bringing hope and salvation to the despairing. And the despairing here is construction worker Ti, a loser with a heart of gold (does Chow play any other kinds of roles these days?) who is a single father bringing up his boy Dicky and trying to inculcate good values in him. But Dicky gets picked on in school simply for being poor. But an alien "dog" soon enters their lives and offers a hope for Dicky to find a way out of his troubles.

If anything, Stephen Chow's last couple of movies can be described as "live-action cartoons." So is CJ7, which is chockful of cartoonish action courtesy of some top-notch, seamless CGI work. But Chow never lets that get in the way of story, and part of what makes his films successful is just that - good, interesting stories and characters. They may not be original, but Chow has become somewhat of a master mixer, mashing up recycled ideas to great effect. This can also be attributed to his spot-on casting and a reliable stock of regulars on whom he can always rely.

But his grand discovery this time is Xu Jiao, the little girl who plays his son, somewhat like the gender-bending exercise Brigitte Lin took on when she played a dude in Dream Of The Red Chamber. Chow and Xu have great on-screen chemistry, and the initial establishment of the father-son relationship has a touching, charming quality.

But the biggest problem with CJ7 movies that deal with children. is its cloying cutesiness, a constant problem with Hong Kong Why do kids have to be cute? Why can't they just be ... kids?

The central character of the alien "dog" is also cute, but thankfully the sweetness level here is more bearable than saccharine. And it's also a bonus that the film doesn't have to rely on its CGI namesake, which, while nicely created and realised, doesn't quite have the needed knock-out impressiveness. So, ironically, for a movie about an alien being, the human characters are far more interesting.

And of course, what's a Stephen Chow movie without the spoofs? This time, there's everything from Mission: Impossible to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to The Matrix, and even Chow's own Kung Fu Hustle. And when a director spoofs his own film, it displays an incredible confidence and an awareness of his own visibility.

The gags come almost non-stop, in what is Chow's loving tribute to the Cinema Of Spectacle, the Hollywood fantasy of lights in the sky that brighten up the darkest of days.

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