As usual, I tried to hide from any reviews that would taint my impressions of the new Stephen Chow film CJ7 before I had a chance to watch it. Yesterday I finally made it to the theater to have a look. Despite the early afternoon screening, the cinema was packed. Selecting my seat, I took the last good spot in the house.
I was curious what to expect as a follow up to Kung Fu Hustle, Stephen Chow’s last film, which I thought was excellent. I tried to keep in mind that CJ7 was created as a Chinese New Year film, which carries certain qualities with it. Typical Chinese New Year fare is family-friendly, and usually stays away from anything depressing or negative.
A major development since the last time Stephen Chow released a film is the greater access to Mainland China’s box office. Just over the last year, Hong Kong films have attained record openings in China that have boosted their success. This is a significant new opportunity that didn’t exist in the past. A large Mainland box-office may mean much more to a Hong Kong production than foreign sales elsewhere since Mainland companies often contribute to financing films.
CJ7 seems indeed like it was assembled with the China market in mind. The plot and symbolism, as well as the acting tended to be very overt. The film did an excellent job of setting the story in any-town modern China. One particular scene early in the film shows Stephen Chow’s character having his lunch high on top of a work site and pans out to show construction as far as the eye can see. This is a true hallmark of contemporary China and would be instantly recognizable to a majority of Mainland audiences. This tailored content is a departure from his other films, which have been aimed primarily at Hong Kong audiences.
Continuing on the same level, the characters were also sketched out with simple motives. There was the hardworking father (played by Chow,) wanting a better life for his son; the kind and compassionate school teacher; the bourgeois teacher further vilified by his grotesque habits (also calculated to draw laughs from the audience,); the rich-kid bully; and the girl that’s too big for her age (in this case comically over-done to get a laugh from even the most unsophisticated audiences.)
The humor, sadness and action were created here to appeal to the widest denominator. Perhaps this is the new recipe for a Chinese New Year film meant to acquire large distribution in Mainland China. It’s not on a level any lower than Hollywood’s holiday pandering. The film is significant in that it is the first Stephen Chow film meant to win broad appeal in the Mainland market for theatrical release during CNY.
Though simple, there were many moments when the film was touching. Chow did a good job of creating a story that draws upon so many commonalities. The film included everyday problems that both children and adults could relate to, such as a child wanting an expensive toy, or encounters with a school bully.
The setting is a contemporary China in transition. The inequalities of rich and poor are strongly pronounced.
Though engaging, certain parts of the film seemed uneven, as if it were conceived in separate skits that didn’t always flow well together. The references to Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle (in a dream sequence,) also seemed a little out of place.
In creating a film to appeal to a wider audience, the work loses some of the signatures of a Stephen Chow performance, such as the linguistic acrobatics characteristic of his earlier works. Although not a classic, it maintains the viewers interest, and features the actor / writer trying something altogether new.