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Tuesday 11 March 2008

"A Saucer of Lovableness:
A Review of Cj7"

by Gary Westfahl

Directed by Stephen Chow

Written by Stephen Chow, Fung Chi Keung, Vincent Kok, Sandy Shaw, and Tsang Kan-Cheung

Starring Stephen Chow, Xu Jiao, Lee Sheung Ching, Kitty Zhang Yuqi, Fung Min Hun, and Lam Tze Chung

(Note: the names of the Chinese actors and writers, which are spelled differently in some sources, here are generally rendered following the Chinese pattern of placing the surname first, except in cases where the person himself or herself, like Stephen Chow, has evidenced a preference for the western pattern.)

Yes, the capsule summary of Cj7 on everyone's lips — that it is a Chinese version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) — is accurate enough as to provide Steven Spielberg with ample grounds, if he chooses, to sue the filmmakers for copyright infringement. From my tangential involvement in one of these lawsuits, I can envision precisely the sort of list of similarities that Spielberg's lawyers might compile and submit to the court: both films feature a young boy living with a single parent; both films depict a diminutive alien being, left behind when a flying saucer departs, which is adopted by and bonds with the boy; both aliens are greenish in color and display amazing abilities, including the powers to generate light and to bring dead organisms to life; before the alien's inevitable departure, its miraculous feats and sheer lovableness enable the boy to build strong relationships with previously distant peers and put his life back on track; and so on.

And how might the lawyers for the film's producer/director/star Stephen Chow respond? Certainly, they could plausibly maintain that Spielberg's own creation was not all that original itself, and that their film (as will be discussed) diverges from the unfortunate Spielberg pattern in several significant ways. Further, if called upon to testify for the defense (which I'd happily agree to), I would also argue that, while the point's impact on the case might be minimal, Chow's effort is, in my expert opinion, a much better film than E.T. (Then again, since I would be forced to admit upon cross-examination that I had once described E.T. as the worst science fiction film ever made, mine could hardly be considered a ringing endorsement of the film's merits.)

So, what exactly makes Cj7 something different, and better, than a remake of E.T. with an all-Chinese cast? First, it offers some genuine pain. Striving to create a suffering child in need of some TLC from outer space, Spielberg myopically drew upon his childhood memories to offer audiences a little boy growing up in an affluent suburb with a single mother who never spends enough time with her son. Poor baby. This film's Dicky (Xu Jiao — a little girl flawlessly portraying a little boy) endures a life of astounding squalor and poverty with his single father, construction worker Ti (Stephen Chow), who must scrounge through garbage dumps to find shoes for his son; indeed, the film's depiction of conditions in their run-down tenement apartment, wretched even by Third World standards, is disquieting to western sensibilities. (For example, the filmmakers must have imagined that audiences would see one of the family's standard games — the father scares the cockroaches out of their hiding places in the kitchen and the son eagerly tries to squash them on the wall — as a charming family moment, yet most Americans would automatically wonder why someone hasn't called Child Protective Services to have the boy immediately removed from the home.) Also, although the father does struggle to send his son to a fancy private school, the boy must regularly endure the taunts of wealthy classmates and the scorn of teachers who recognize Dicky as a low-class child in a high-class world. A few scenes struck me as especially telling: in an early scene, when Dicky's harsh teacher Mr. Cao (Lee Sheung Ching) asks students what they would like to be when they grow up, two of his classmates say "superstar" and "entrepreneur," while Dicky humbly says only that he wants to be a "poor person." Then, when Mr. Cao drops his pen, he recoils when Dicky comes forward to pick it up and instructs him to drop it again, whereupon he carefully picks it up with a handkerchief, desperate to avoid any contact with the contaminating touch of the poor child. Dicky may appear to shrug this type of treatment off, but at the conclusion of a dream sequence in which he bests his schoolyard rivals and teachers with alien magic, he explains his desire to humiliate everyone by startlingly stating that "Bitterness, like the sea, is boundless." His father fares no better: when Ti visits the school to speak to a more sympathetic teacher, Miss Yuen (Kitty Zhang Yuqi), he stands on one side of a gated entrance, talking to her through bars that symbolize the social barrier that divides them. (Because the father announces that he is sending his son to that school so the boy can escape the limitations of his own lack of education, this film oddly recalls the old tear-jerker Stella Dallas [1925, 1937] in describing a loving parent's self-sacrificing efforts to lift a child above the class of the parent.) At the end of the film, since it is after all a comedy, everybody seems to be socializing in a more equitable fashion, but nothing about the conclusion suggests that Dicky's income or status will be significantly heightened by his strange experiences.

One sequence in the film is especially evocative in relating the theme of striving to rise above one's class to science fiction itself. One night, Ti is rummaging through a huge heap of garbage (where he will eventually find the alien, initially resembling a toy ball), in search of another pair of shoes for his son, when he is momentarily entranced by a suddenly flickering television set. While he stares at the screen, behind him, an immense flying saucer rises out of the heap of debris and slowly ascends into space, although Ti never notices it. This scene reminds us, first of all, that while science and the literature associated with science, science fiction, are often regarded, and criticized, as the products of society's elite classes, many modern scientists and science fiction writers were, in fact, desperately poor children whose extravagant dreams of amazing new technologies and space travel were linked to their fervent desire to get away from the sordid world they lived in; quite literally, spaceships can emerge from society's garbage heaps. (This message may be especially resonant when striving to popularize science fiction in emerging nations like China — where, despite ongoing advances, most citizens remain impoverished by western standards — and is underlined by the fact that the alien's name, Cj7, refers to China's space program.) It is ironic, however, that the only poor person in the vicinity of the UFO does not even see the spaceship emerge — reminding us that, if it sometimes seems as if scientific progress is only the work of the rich and powerful, that is because they will always have time to dream, while the less fortunate may be driven away from their dreams to necessarily focus on their constant struggle to survive. It is a scene that makes me want to show this film in the science fiction classes that I teach behind prison walls, where students often have trouble relating the bright shiny visions of the stories and films to their often dark, grim, and violent lives.

In sharp contrast to the film's stark portrayal of life at the bottom of the social ladder stands another of the film's major departures from its undistinguished predecessor: whereas Spielberg was trying to make a "family" film to appeal to both younger viewers and their parents, Chow seems to be aiming, at least at times, almost exclusively at an audience of very young children. One sign of this is the appearance and manner of the aliens. Spielberg modeled his extraterrestrial on familiar images of purported alien visitors to Earth, and while a bit reptilian, his E.T. is mainly a small humanoid; Chow's Cj7, although it occasionally stands up and walks like a person, basically looks and acts like a tiny, adorable dog. In fact, if Chow does not find himself confronting representatives of Steven Spielberg in court, he might face legal action from another party — Sanrio Company, which holds the rights to the trademark figure Hello Kitty — whose lawyers could persuasively argue that Cj7, save for the replacement of cartoonishly feline attributes with cartoonishly canine attributes, is otherwise identical to their much-beloved icon (although Cj7's huge eyes and round furry head might also remind Americans of Joe Dante's Gremlins [1984]). Cj7 also appears to be much less intelligent than his American counterpart, and some of his antics are so outlandishly inane as to recall a television series for preschoolers, not a serious science fiction film. (Thankfully, some of these excesses are later exposed as Dicky's dreams — but too many of them are not.) In this case as well, the filmmakers probably could not have imagined that what Chinese audiences would regard as good-hearted fun might cause some American adults to squirm uncomfortably in their seats. In addition, the film explicitly addresses children with some loud messages that adult audiences hardly need to hear: it's good to work hard and to always be honest; it's bad to be a bully.

What ultimately protects the film from becoming too cloyingly childish is that Chow apparently realized that some adults in the audience might abhor much of what they would be viewing, and he included some scenes just for them. Thus, when Cj7 makes his first complete appearance with those insufferably endearing big, big eyes and that insufferably irresistible smile, a curmudgeon in the theatre might mutter, "I wish somebody would punch his face in." Well, that person's wish will come true, as there are numerous scenes of Cj7 being smashed, bruised, squashed, stretched, and flattened in a manner obviously quite painful to the poor little fellow. After the boy dreams that Cj7 can provide him with magical devices to triumph over his classmates, the real Cj7 gives him nothing but a big turd, and later sprays him with alien diarrhea; one can hardly blame Dicky for then throwing him in the trash, another scene to delight exasperated parents in the audience. Spielberg, of course, was much too enraptured by his own creation to even imagine having some child try to strangle E.T., hit him in the head with a hammer, or throw him across the room, or to display what his body would produce after eating all of those Reese's Pieces, even though such scenes might have vastly improved his film — at least from this curmudgeon's perspective. Chow, thankfully, is detached enough to recognize that he is sometimes overdoing the treacle, and so engages in these sorts of good-natured self-criticism. (Chow also questions his own skills at comedy in the closing scene, when his character is ineffectually trying to court Miss Yuen and his son sagely observes, "It's not easy to win a girl over, especially if you're not very funny.")

What should be apparent from all of this discussion is that the most consistent feature of Cj7 is its inconsistency: it is serious, then suddenly silly; sentimental, then suddenly sardonic. And this also distinguishes Chow's film from Spielberg's film, which unfolds with the studied inevitability of a polished Hollywood product eager to please at every juncture. Quite distinctively, Chow provides a film that will regularly surprise viewers — sometimes pleasantly, sometimes unpleasantly — but audiences numbed by the monotonous smoothness of the pre-planned contemporary blockbuster may now have reached the point where even an unpleasant surprise is appreciated.

Still, however much one explains that Cj7 is more socially conscious, more childlike, and more variegated in its content and tone than E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the fact remains that the films are dishearteningly akin in their attitudes toward space travel and the human condition — another point to concede to the plaintiff's attorneys. Once upon a time, outer space was properly envisioned in science fiction as a cold and challenging new environment which would demand progress and maturity before humans could inhabit it; as a natural corollary, the beings from space who visited Earth invariably seemed like adults, older and wiser than humans, intent upon either establishing their rightful mastery over us by conquest or educating us to become worthy enough to join the cosmic community. Somehow, however, the notion emerged that space was actually a warm and friendly place, perhaps recalling earlier periods of human history like the American west, a realm which might therefore require human regression more than maturation; correspondingly, visitors from space now at times seem more like children — here not to undermine humanity's most cherished beliefs but to reaffirm them, beings who have come to play with us, to eagerly seek our affection and approval, and to make us feel good about ourselves and our enduring commitment to time-honored family values. Ultimately, then, Cj7 betrays the promise of progress and advancement inherent in that image of the rising flying saucer — for when the flying saucer finally returns to Earth, all it has to offer humanity is a huge assemblage of adorable, animate stuffed animals, all ready to love us, and to be loved by us. Well, a film like this may be all right as an occasional indulgence, but those who wish to wallow all the time in films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Cj7 need to be reminded that, once upon a time, the purpose of science fiction was to offer its audiences a bracing slap in the face, not a reassuring hug.

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