Stephen Chow is a classical artist in that he stands up for the plight of the poor without resorting to easy upper-class bashing and cliche. As Dicky (Jiao Xu) is told by his father (Chow) many times in CJ7: "We may be poor, but we don't steal, fight, or lie." His lesson is that the playing field of universal ethics and morals is a flat one.
This theme isn't new for Chow. It is central to his feel-good overcomers in Kung Fu Hustle, and Shaolin Soccer. Examining social mores without getting overly political comes natural to Chow, but somehow it's lost on many modern filmmakers. This could explain the shrugged reaction of audiences to many post-9/11 wartime films.
CJ7's first camera move is a slow overhead pan from the hood ornaments of a Mercedes-Benz and Rolls Royce down to Dicky's sewn together shoes. The three subjects have arrived at their destination in vastly different ways, but the implication is that the burden of class distinction - while still heavier on the less fortunate - is no excuse for segregation.
Nor should it lead to the path of resignation, as when Dicky's father and boss have a verbal back-and-forth of "I can manage... You can't manage... I can manage ... YOU CAN'T MANAGE! ... I can manage ... YOU CAN'T MANAGE! ... I can manage." That final retort is delivered with a pause and a grin from Chow, communicating to his boss that this struggle has already been had-out within,... and there ain't no changing his mind.
Dicky isn't an unpopular kid, but he's shunned by the ones with the cool toys. The latest fad is a robot dog called CJ1. Like every child, Dicky wants one, but it's out of his father's price range. One night, while rummaging and salvaging through a garbage heap, Dicky's father finds a neon green rubber ball as a replacement toy. The ball ends up becoming an alien dog, and Dicky names it CJ7.
It's this simple "kid film" set-up that has critics dismissing CJ7 as hokum instead of celebrating it - at this point - as 2008's best film. This isn't surprising, given how lazy and intellectually incestuous critics circles have become, but it's disappointing. To go on Metacritic and see that Cloverfield, Teeth, and... Christ almighty!!! ... Doomsday, have higher ratings than CJ7 is just plain embarrassing and shameful. It makes you understand the joke behind Stephen Chow's naming of his production company... A Star Overseas.
The critical reception Chow gets is akin to the seasonal dismissal of post-80's Spielberg as "sentimental" and simple-minded. I bring Spielberg up because CJ7 has been widely compared to E.T. And, yes, while both films share sentimental (GASP! oh no... not that!) sensibilities, Chow's film has more in common with the Looney Tunes freak out cinema of Joe Dante... albeit, less demented, and less obsessed with the macabre. Like Dante's groundbreaking use of animation in his segment of Twilight Zone : The Movie, Chow's use of CGI, since Shaolin Soccer, has been a revelation.
Unlike the way, say, a post-Frighteners Peter Jackson or a Spider Man-era Sam Raimi use CGI to fill-in cinematic gaps and bring a phony realism to impossible shots and stunts, Chow embraces the artificiality of CGI and uses it to add absurdity. In it's best moments - the final soccer match in Shaolin Soccer, the Landlady and Landlord's kung-fu showdown with The Beast in Kung-Fu Hustle, and the schoolyard fight between two bodyguards in CJ7 - Chow's CGI adds real-life emotional heft and intensity to otherwise fantastical situations.
Seeing a film like CJ7 in the theater is exciting. It makes you cheer on the possibility that the poor quality of film, bleeding over from 2007, may soon scab over. In movie terms, 2008 is just a baby, but like '07, it's had an underwhelming start (besides CJ7, Diary of the Dead and Be Kind Rewind are 08's only superstars...). If the movie gods are watching, they should send down a giant CGI flood - Chow style, of course - to wash away last year's still lingering residue so bright seeds like CJ7 may sprout, and spray their influence widely. Let the backlash begin!