If Charles Dickens was subtle, he would be Stephen Chow.
Stephen Chow’s CJ7 is a film on two levels. On one, a superficial level that is quite enjoyable, a schoolboy meets an adorable alien traveler, in a plot that is an improved version of ET. On another, a deeper level that produces striking cinematography, it is a story about the pervasive poverty of China’s uneducated working class.
CJ7 revolves around an uneducated laborer who spends most of his income on his son’s tuition. If you watched any of the documentaries on contemporary China in the run-up to the Olympics, you saw a number of variations of this story. Indeed, the documentary Up the Yangzte presents a feature-length exploration of the topic. But what can be numbing and foreign in a serious presentation is more approachable under Chow’s direction. The son’s school is not just a good school, but an impossible modern one — laptops on every child’s desk, one apparently Irish pupil who speaks fluent Cantonese, and none of this is remarked upon by any of the characters
To pay for this, the father works at a high-rise job site. Work revolves around a mercurial boss, who’s mix of physical violence and deep sympathy is reflected in several other relationships in the movie. In one of the very first lines, the boy who is the focus of the film is asked, “What does your father do.” The reply is straightforward: “He is a coolie.”
The family’s lack of material positions is never far from their minds. Summer nights are too hot to sleep, and a subplot of the film involves finding and then repairing a mechanical fan. (“Is it real?! Does it work?!”) The father and son watch cartoons and a report of local bumpkins from the sidewalk, in a scene that transition into the boy demanding a toy (to fit in at school) that his father can’t possibly afford.
The surface plot camouflages this. The words of a reviewer at IMDB, “The story is no longer serious or ambitious,” belies just how serious and ambitious the story is. The children’s story on the face of CJ7, and its intersection with the Dicksonian novel at its heart, is too involved to describe here. The scenes of the this work are too compelling to ignore.
CJ7 is the best film I have seen in a long time.