Life in Cartoon Motion
by Brendon Bouzard

Dir. Stephen Chow, Hong Kong, Sony Pictures Classics

Stephen Chow was at least at one point the biggest star in Asia; he may still be. As an actor, he’s affable, equally conversant with extreme physical comedy and action melodrama. As a filmmaker, his approach is endearingly idiosyncratic: irreverent, homage-heavy, with unapologetically stylized performance, camerawork, and low slapstick. His lineage as filmmaker includes Keaton, the Brothers Marx and Hui, Chuck Jones, and the better ZAZ spoofs. He has taken longer and longer to produce each of his recent directorial offerings (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle), but this has not diminished his drawing power—those films not only broke box-office records but also allowed Chow to cross over into western markets, blending his anarchic, cracked mo lei tau sensibility with interculturally resonant genre play. That Kung Fu Hustle arrived in western theaters on the heels of the portentous, lugubrious post-Crouching Tiger martial-arts pageants of Zhang Yimou likely contributed greatly to its success and to the high expectations in line for his newest film, four years in the making.

At first, CJ7 will be startling to Chow’s fans, perhaps because it exposes many of the sentimental undercurrents of his previous films. For all their flip goofiness, Kung Fu Hustle, God of Cookery, and Shaolin Soccer can be read as square celebrations of Chinese culture and the basic goodness of the disenfranchised. CJ7 is a distillation and refinement of this sensibility, and if the film’s abrupt tonal disjunctures are often jarring, Chow nonetheless succeeds in blending cartoonish slapstick into a narrative largely cribbed from that most sentimental of blockbusters, E.T. The story of CJ7 is less Keaton and more Chaplin—Dicky (Xu Jiao), a poor boy without a mother (shades of Disney) whose construction worker father Ti (Chow) is working overtime to put him into private school, faces adversity from classmates and teachers until a small alien/toy found in a landfill changes both his and his father’s lives. Chow manages to shoehorn some hilariously overplayed schoolyard fight sequences and a half-dozen gross-out gags about alien crap and cockroaches along the way, but often the film plays more toward viewers’ emotional sensibilities, with confectionery-cute alien gimmickry and histrionic melodrama often paired in the same shot.

The film’s difficulty in shifting between these tonal registers is the primary obstacle to its success—Chow seems unsure how to bridge low comedy and high melodrama, utilizing two wildly distinct formal approaches that often resonate atonally. One early comic sequence in which Dicky witnesses schoolmates playing with an expensive toy is quickly followed by a scene in which Ti spanks Dicky in a toy store for misbehavior. The extraordinarily loud, crisp sound work makes the sequence deeply upsetting, bringing to mind of all things that painful, awful slap in Bicycle Thieves (a comparison Chow would likely invite, given the film’s interest in class cleavages). Later sequences make no apology for their effusive high melodrama, complete with baroquely emotional music; in one sequence, Chow even features a techno remix of Gazebo’s beloved Euro-cheese anthem “I Like Chopin.”

In between these transitional moments, however, the film eases into sturdier rhythms. The comic bits—schoolyard fights, extraterrestrial dookie, and all—offer deliriously regressive laffs, and these unhinged points of anarchic release are formally of a piece with Chow’s earlier work, using bright colors, comic strip-like planimetric staging and unanticipated rapid shifts into exaggerated CG-heavy slapstick. And the dramatic moments, once untethered from the awkward transitions, are often remarkably moving, with beautifully natural lighting schemes by Hong Kong legend Poon Hang Sang (who shot Tsui Hark’s awesome Peking Opera Blues).

Most surprising, however, is how pointed Chow proves in his engagement with questions of socioeconomics, painting both Dicky and Ti’s lives as a succession of personal and financial indignations. At his cartoonishly perfect private school, Dicky is chastised by teachers for his dirty, torn clothing and bullied by a gang of classmates, led by a technocentric wannabe-industrialist with a high hairline and haughty eyebrows. By contrast, Chow offers startlingly naturalistic settings for Ti’s hazardous construction site and his and Dicky’s home, a dilapidated flat that wouldn’t be out of place in a more obviously political film like Still Life. Chow plays many of these at-home sequences with self-assured comedy—one scene in which the pair stomp on dozens of cockroaches that emerge from behind a wall is touchingly funny—but the lingering, vertiginous shots of construction workers perilously working on site are a harrowing and incisive comment on the realities of China’s robust market capitalization.

The nature of the titular alien himself speaks further to Chow’s wariness of China’s miracle economy. The magical and helpful CJ7 appears to Dicky at first to be an abundant free good along the lines of Lil’ Abner’s shmoo, the Edenic, self-replicating creature that Al Capp used in the late 1940s to show how industrial capitalism is invested in maintaining a low quality of life for workers. Yet CJ7’s limitations—which provides the engine for the film’s second half—are a sobering subversion of economic utopianism and the prosperity gospel of Chinese growth that ignores the massively disenfranchised worker population. CJ7’s power is unswervingly moral and has no place in the culture of shortcuts and cheating that Chow positions as the tacit essence of economic prosperity in China.

Those who have noted the weakness of Chow’s female characters will not be persuaded by the stock “kind teacher” (the comely, emotionally blank Kitty Zhang) who serves as Dicky’s confederate and Ti’s perfunctory love interest. But the rest of the cast—including the remarkable Xu as Dicky and Chow regular Lam Tze Chung as Ti’s boss—proves adept, expanding the script’s assembly of comic and dramatic types into lived-in, sympathetic performances. There are some who will call the film a pandering merchandising cash-in, and they might be right. CJ7 plush dolls are selling out in Eastern Asia at $17 a pop as we speak, and the likelihood that they’ll start selling for twice that at comics and novelty shops across this country is high. The film, though, proves an entertaining, if minor, detour for the maturing Chow. Those put off by its assiduous sap can be assured that Kung Fu Hustle 2 is on its way.