Poverty-stricken schoolboy Dicky Chow (Xu Jiao) doesn’t fit in with his classmates. His dishevelled, but hardworking father Ti (Stephen Chow Sing Chi) tries to teach him the value of honesty, integrity and studying hard, but happiness is hard to come by when you live in a tiny, roach-infested shack, wear tattered clothes to school and get bullied everyday for not owning the latest high-tech gadgets. Searching the junkyard to find his son a toy, entirely unaware of a recently-departed UFO, Ti discovers a mysterious green orb. It transforms into furry, fun-loving CJ7, a shapeshifting alien dog with magical powers that will bring Dicky fame, riches and happiness. Or so he thinks…
The year’s most eagerly anticipated Hong Kong movie, Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s sci-fi comedy delighted local audiences, sold a lot of CJ7 toys to little kids and irritated the hell out of his new English-speaking fan base, who somehow thought all his films involve kung fu. Unlikely to become a crossover hit on par with Kung Fu Hustle (2004), this remains slight and sketchy compared to the mind-blowing Shaolin Soccer (2001), yet is lifted by moments of pathos, social commentary and an admirable refusal to play by Hollywood rules.
It has been said that Cantonese cinema’s major concern is with the unfair disparity between rich and poor, and the inability of government or official parties to help. Few populist filmmakers understand this better than Chow, who shows Ti and Dicky’s grimy, hard-luck existence in gritty, unsentimental fashion. Father and son inhabit a believably squalid world where they squabble, suffer and struggle, offset by moments of wry slapstick (they make a game out of squishing cockroaches). The multi-authored story (the first not to feature script input from Chow himself) might evoke memories of cloyingly awful E.T. (1982) rip-offs from the 1980s, but the treatment is closer to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921).
Disappointingly, when compared to the sparky heroines of Chow classics like Love on Delivery (1994), King of Comedy (1999) and Shaolin Soccer, Kitty Zhang Yuqi’s kindly teacher is merely a saintly and saccharine love interest. In contrast, Chow coaxes a fine performance from young Xu Jiao, whose charisma and comedic talent suggest stardom beckons.
Although Chow parodies bits from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) and E.T., it is the depiction of sci-fi in Asian pop culture that provides his inspiration. Which invariably means anime. So we have a giant sumo wrestling schoolgirl (Han Yong-Hua) straight out of Project A-KO (1987), little kids with super-spy gadgets (the Time Bokan (1975) film series - due a live action update from Takashi Miike), and the surreal Pokemon-esque antics of CJ7. However, Chow successfully wrong-foots us as to what the film is going to be. A cuddly computer-generated creation, CJ7 turns rotten fruit fresh again, uses kung fu against a vicious dog and whips up high-tech super-gadgetry to help Dicky ace the school test, beat bullies and rule the soccer field.
Then Dicky wakes up and discovers the last twenty minutes of screen time were a dream. In reality, CJ7 is almost completely useless: beaten up by the dog, bullied by rich kids, and unable to produce anything except a hailstorm of turds. Leaving poor Dicky drenched in shit in front of his jeering classmates. What CJ7 can do is heal things, including a broken fan that brings Ti and Dicky some relief from the sweltering heat, and leads to a climactic deus ex machina after events take a turn for the tragic. Chow appears to imply cuddly aliens can provide light relief, but don’t go looking to them to solve your problems. Reality is simply too hard. Only when Dicky knuckles down, studies hard and wins the respect of his peers on his own terms, do things start to look a little brighter.
The closing shot flirts uncomfortably with looking like a toy commercial, yet still suggests adolescence will bring Dicky a whole new set of problems and avoids easy answers. The overall message: life goes on, through good times and bad. Bonus points for the surprise soundtrack inclusion of “Sunny”, that old disco ditty by Boney M.