Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

With their ingenuous heroes, their broader than broad comedy, their naïve sentimentality and their cartoonish exuberance, Stephen Chow's international hits Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2005) brought a childlike perspective to their pastiche of adult(ish) genres – so while CJ7 may be Chow's first film made specifically for children, that is not to say that it is so very different from what has preceded – indeed his fans will be quick to spot overt references (an explosive football game, a leap to the height of an eagle) to his own previous works in what is otherwise an homage to E.T. and the like.

The mother of young boy Dicky Chow (played by Xu Jiao, who is in fact a girl) died of illness years ago, leaving his stern but loving father Ti (Chow) to work long hours as a coolie on a building site. Their home is a cockroach-infested single room in a dilapidated tenement, their clothes and belongings have all been salvaged from the local dump, and Dicky's obvious impoverishment and scruffy appearance make him an easy target for teachers and bullies alike at the private school to which his father cannot really afford to send him. Of course Dicky wishes for a better life – but most of all he wishes for a CJ1, the expensive new toy robot dog that all his fellow pupils have.

No wonder, then, that Dicky is disappointed when his father brings him a green ball found on a rubbish heap instead – disappointed, that is, until the ball metamorphoses into a cute "alien toy dog", dubbed CJ7 by the boy. And while CJ7 may not quite have the power to help Dicky cheat his way to perfect grades, excel at sports, defeat the bullies and beat up his teachers, the magical critter is able to help mend a broken family...

Chow's films represent a special category. Their humour is hit-and-miss, their female characters are always woefully underwritten, and any laudable value that they uphold will just as readily be abandoned for a cheap laugh (in this case, while Dicky may defend a fat girl from bullying, the film itself continues to hold up her size for ridicule). And yet Chow can get away with this and more, thanks to his mastery of that elusive quality, winsomeness – the sort of charm that emerges when a child-like inanity is given free rein. So the more irritant aspects of CJ7 (and there is much in it to annoy) can be indulged as just part of his overall whimsy, in a film where even the slightest nod towards social realism is quickly swept aside by madcap humour and hyperbolic CG effects. This really is a film for kids, big or small – a Chaplinesque transformation of a drab world into a place where everything is colourful, over-the-top and silly.

That said, at a time when some British politicians are up in arms about the effect that The Dark Knight might have on any (accompanied) minors in cinemas, CJ7 contains one sequence that is more likely to traumatise young children than anything found in Nolan's dark epic – a scene in which Dicky is told some very harrowing news, and is then shown howling, wailing and weeping in what seems like endless minutes of sustained, entirely realistic distress. It is an odd scene in an odd film that never seems able to settle on a consistent tone – but then again, when harsh reality is confronted by (and filtered through) childish imagination, such inconsistency and tension are the inevitable results, so that they hardly represent a flaw in the film. CJ7 is full of dreams, fantasies and wish fulfilment, and such reality as there is to be found in it is not always so easily distinguished from all the surrounding fancy. Only Dicky's unhappiness remains clear throughout, until at last he learns the lesson that you cannot always get what you want (but then gets it anyway).

It would be easy to dismiss CJ7 as an exercise in merchandising, what with its titular 'character' apparently designed to be reproduced in shops the world over as an iconic cuddly toy – and yet in a way the film is about putting away childish things and appreciating what you already have. And it may well present parents with the challenge of discussing with their young ones such weighty, all-too-real issues as inequality, indigence and death. Some might even find it preferable just to buy the rubber-and-fur plaything, as a distraction from these more uncomfortable aspects of life. The very choice, however, between fantasy and reality, is ultimately what CJ7 addresses and dramatises. Chow's film is charming, to be sure – but that is just the half of it.

Reviewed on: 06 Aug 2008
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A strange toy transforms the life of a lonely young boy from an impoverished home.
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Director: Stephen Chow

Writer: Stephen Chow, Vincent Kok, Tsang Kan Cheong, Sandy Shaw Lai King, Fung Chih Chiang, Lam Fung

Starring: Xu Jiao, Stephen Chow, Kitty Zhang, Lee Sheung Ching, Fun Min Hun, Huang Lei, Yao Wen Xue, Han Yong Wua, Lam Tze Chung, Hu Qian Lin

Year: 2008

Runtime: 86 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Hong Kong


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