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Disclaimer time, babies: I make no apologies for my complete and utter adoration of Stephen Chow.  So, if you’re looking for an unbiased opinion, this ain’t it.

For those unfortunates who may not be exposed to the pure fabulosity, Stephen Chow is one of the biggest stars in Asia; the leading comedy star of the past 20-odd years there, starring in over 50 films.  Some notables include GOD OF GAMBLERS 2, FROM BEIJING WITH LOVE, his two CHINESE ODYSSEY films, FORBIDDEN CITY COP, and the GOD OF COOKERY.  Each features Chow’s unique style of comedy, called "mo lei tau," or “nonsense,” embraces spoofs of popular culture Chinese and Western, plays on words, and occasional off-the-wall, silly slapstick. 

Despite a badly mishandled initial attempt at US domination, a.k.a. the excellent, but horribly promoted SHAOLIN SOCCER, Chow bounced back with the wildly popular follow-up, KUNG FU HUSTLE, which did exponentially better in the States than its predecessor, and was the biggest box office moneymaker in Hong Kong history.  Through DVD and cable TV exposure, more Americans have seen KUNG FU HUSTLE, and caught interest in Chow’s films.

As a die-hard fan, I could not wait until his newest release.  Though many were sure he’d do the predictable thing and make KUNG FU HUSTLE 2, it was with admiration that I read on the fabulous MonkeyPeaches.com, the first news that Chow would instead make what was a first for him in two ways: Chow’s next release would be, A) a Sci-fi film with some outer space tendencies, and, B) a children’s film.  CJ7 is what hatched after a long gestation period, and boy, is it a strange little turnip…

The Chow family is poor; I mean p-o-o-r.  Widower Chow and his young son Dicky live in the kind of poverty that qualifies cockroach stomping in the dilapidated hovel they call home as family bonding time.  Chow (- Named Ti in the press notes, but the other characters keep calling him Chow) is a manual labourer at a construction site, spending every yuan on a better education for Dicky, whose disheveled appearance makes him a target for cruel bullies and snobbish teachers at his posh school.  The precious few moments when Chow isn’t working or taking care of his son are spent in the junkyard foraging for scraps of food and existential basics like Dicky’s school uniform.  It’s on one of these forays that Chow finds a new toy for Dicky, who is mercilessly teased about not being able to afford all the latest gadgets like his schoolmates. 

Chow is so engrossed in his search that he completely misses the extremely large, glowing hubcap flying off inches away from where he discovers a luminescent green ball for Dicky.  If he’d noticed, maybe he could’ve warned Dicky of the possibility that the benign green ball might sprout four gelatinous green limbs and an adorable face covered in bright yellow fluff.  Dicky’s prayers are answered, or so he thinks: Not only does he have a cool new toy that nobody else has, he also thrills to his assumption that the strange little dog can give him anything his heart desires, whether it’s the ability to score A’s on tests, to be a champ at sports, or to thoroughly humiliate a snobbish, hateful teacher who ridicules Dicky and his poor background at every opportunity. 

Unfortunately, Dicky doesn’t handle the disappointment of discovering that CJ7 can’t actually bring him any of the things he dreams of, and appears only there to be loved like the pet he is, very well, and Dicky is cruel to the sweet alien and discards him.  An unexpected situation strikes and CJ7 turns out to be more valuable to Dicky than he will ever know, and the little boy realises the true friendship offered by the little space creature.

CJ7 carries all the marks of your standard Chow mien (- I’m so sorry); the over-the-top physical comedy, the focus on underdog characters, references to popular films (- including Chow’s own SHAOLIN SOCCER and KUNG FU HUSTLE), and its sweet and sour comedic take on the state of the world.  There's Chow's standard gender bender character -- in this case a sensitive schoolmate with a crush on Dicky -- and the so-thin-it’s-barely-there romance between Chow and Dicky's kind-hearted teacher.

Now this is going to be MG holding Our tongue, because I can’t bear to say a bad thing for this talent I adore so much, but the democracy I’m going to be using henceforth would put the UN to shame:  I can’t recall the last time I’d seen such a wildly uneven offering from the excellent Stephen Chow as CJ7.  It was such a long time coming that I may have taken its shortcomings personally, but there are real issues with the film.  I think the main problem is that Chow tried to make a children’s film and simply didn’t know how.

There is way too much in CJ7 that simply feels like one of his comedies shrunk down to kiddie-size, and sometimes it comes off as awkward, and at other times inappropriate.  The amount of physical abuse imparted to the CJ7 character just is out of control.  I know it’s completely made of pixels, but the point is we’re supposed to care about what happens to the little alien pooch that depends on Dicky as his only friend on earth.  It doesn’t help that (s)he’s designed to be the "Gimme!" toy for Christmas (- And I’ll have mine now, if you please.) with his rubbery body and the sweet, scampish, most heart-melting face this side of Elmo (- Though really he’s bit closer to Afro-Ken.).  Despite my love of Chow’s offbeat slapstick, watching Dicky pummel and try to drown CJ7 when he realises the alien can’t do any magic tricks for him, or Chow -- unaware that CJ7 is a living organism -- slamming a trash can lid on it repeatedly, and worst when the Triad-member-in-training school bully whips out a tool kit on the shrieking alien, the comedy takes a nasty turn.  Was I watching Stephen Chow or David Cronenberg?  Heck, I got more laughs from the knife scene in EASTERN PROMISES than watching the cute little alien sputtering out water, gasping for its life before being thrown out with the trash. 

I understood completely that the lollipop with the cyanide centre was very Chow and probably wouldn’t cause a child in Hong Kong to blink; while all I could think of was how American parents were going to explain these proceedings to their much more cotton-wool encased children? 

Even without that consideration, the treatment of CJ7 left me with a sour taste after watching it that coloured my view of the rest of the movie.  Only with the more raucous moments where no CGI animals were being assaulted or dissected, was I able to focus on the other aspects of the film.

Some of the shining moments come, as usual, from Chow’s casting choices; specifically his selection of an 8-year old actress, Xu Jiao, to play his son, Dicky.  She is absolutely wonderful, and had I not read it in advance, it would have been impossible to detect that she wasn’t actually male.  Her reactions, movements and posture are utterly boyish.

She’s so completely natural and non-actor-ish, that it doesn’t seem that Chow had to do very much to get such a great performance.  His scenes with Xu Jiao (- Far too few) are absolutely precious and their real affection for each other is evident.  This film is very much Chow’s version of Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID and he could not have found a better, more sympathetic young actor to play opposite him.

Early in the film -- in another scene US parents will clutch their pearls over -- Dicky throws a tantrum in a department store when his father won’t buy him the super new robot dog coveted by all his schoolmates.  Chow spanks Dicky until he puts the toy down ( - In a scene that Chow told me came from directly his own life), and though it’s difficult to watch the adorable child being punished that way, you can see the tenderness and regret in Chow’s eyes as he’s doing it.  It really does hurt Chow more than it hurts his son.  Stephen Chow and Xu Jiao have a true and tangible chemistry which is the heart of this film.

The other interesting casting choice was the marginalising of Chow’s onscreen involvement, though he is allegedly the star.  As with KUNG FU HUSTLE, Chow’s presence is more like an introductory element, leading the audience into the theatre with the pull of his name, then giving his blessing by popping in and out of the film that follows.  He does the same here (- For reasons he revealed in his interview with me), and I must say it’s disappointing. 

In KUNG FU HUSTLE, I started to see the strains of ennui from Chow; not a half-hearted performance, but a look in his eyes that maybe he was just plain tired of being the star of the movies.  And in KUNG FU HUSTLE it worked to great effect pushing forward the wonderful “supporting” cast of veteran martial arts film stars. 

He does the same in CJ7, allowing Xu Jiao to take the majority of the scenes, which she does wonderfully, but I can’t help but miss Stephen Chow in a Stephen Chow comedy.

The alien itself really isn’t given much to do but suffer, just as the film suffers from an unsteady balance between some heavy-handed drama and uproarious outrageous moments of real laughter.  CJ7, both extraterrestrial creature and film, does have some truly laugh out loud moments, but not nearly enough as the alien story takes a backseat to the poverty and trials of the Chow family. 

I can only wonder at the fun we might’ve seen if the alien actually had been able to grant the Chows their wishes. There was so much potential to make a truly fantastic story about this being from another world and his interaction with a poor-but-honest human family and it just drops flat, living up to none of the promise of what a Stephen Chow Sci-fi comedy could have been.


~ The Lady Miz Diva/Mighty Ganesha
March 1st, 2008


Click Here for our Exclusive CJ7 Coverage with interview with Hong Kong Legend, Director, Writer and Actor Stephen Chow and Star Xu Jiao


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