Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: CJ-7 (2008)

Stephen Chow's movies have an odd comedic sensibility that I didn't notice before seeing CJ-7. Sure, I squirmed at how tough it was for the team to triumph in Shaolin Soccer and I cringed as the hero's face was punched (literally) into the ground over and over again in Kung Fu Hustle, but I didn't give those feelings much thought. These moments of sudden, grisly violence were spread well over the course of the stories, and seemed natural in their setting. My unease only indicated that the scenes were effective.

The plot of CJ-7 is something out of The Fucking 1980's; a poor kid who lives in a junkyard with his father finds a cute alien lifeform, and whimsical wackiness ensues. As if Chow watched E.T. and thought "I can do that!" Upon hearing the plot, my own thoughts were "Okay... but how will he fit martial arts into the story?"

After much time is devoted to establishing how miserable father and son are at both school and work, the kid finally discovers the alien. For reasons not indicated, the kid decides to hide it from his father. The father (played by Chow himself, by the way) finds it, but thinking it is a toy, then decides to test how resilient it is by twisting it in every direction and then hitting it with a frying pan while the alien screams in obvious pain.

It was here I noticed that something was very, very off.

Well anyway, with the ruse intact, the boy takes the thing to school to totally rock the socks off of everyone who has bullied him this far. The pins of Act I have been set up, and Act II is here to knock them down. Crazy, hilarious shit happens, the bullies get their comeuppance, the kid rights those who have wronged him, and finally gets a bit of happiness in his life.

And it's all a dream.

Oh, but not the alien part, mind you. The kid wakes up, happy and full of bushy-eyed hope, and actually takes the alien to school. This time, it goes horribly awry in such a way that is both highly predictable and palpatably painful. It is cruelty so harsh that it breaks free from the film and inflicts itself on anyone watching.

And suddenly it all makes sense. Chow in Shaolin Soccer trains like mad but cannot win until an element totally outside of his control comes in to save the day. Likewise, Chow in Kung Fu Hustle abandons a way of life that has caused him nothing but pain and misery... until the very end when it suddenly works. More than Chow's method of storytelling, this is his sensibility. So naturally a cute space alien is not the primary method for bringing happiness to a father and son. Happiness for Chow, it seems, only comes in the last five seconds, by something arbitrary or something that is taken for granted. The rest is rife with punching, squirting blood/shit, and pee jokes (and is thus hysterical). He didn't think "I can do that!" after watching E.T. He thought "Here's what would have happened if it were me." He must have had one fucked up childhood.

Things do ultimately work out for the best... sort of. The characters learn "valuable" lessons, but at dire costs to the cute, hapless schmoo, and not before father and son commit awful, despicable acts that aren't the least bit endearing. And one scene in particular, watching the son chase the alien around with the honest intent to kill, I couldn't help but want to do the same thing to Stephen Chow.


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