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Interview: Stephen Chow (CJ7)

CJ7 is the latest from filmmaker Stephen Chow, the mastermind behind Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, both which drew record-breaking audiences into China’s box offices and earned Chow a well-deserved fanbase throughout the rest of the world.

CJ7 is the latest from filmmaker Stephen Chow, the mastermind behind Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, both which drew record-breaking audiences into China’s box offices and earned Chow a well-deserved fanbase throughout the rest of the world. With CJ7, Chow departs from the martial-arts/comedy genre and delivers a film that could be described an ET for the anime generation. I reccently had the chance to meet with Mr. Chow while he was in New York to talk about the production of CJ7.

The movie centers around 8-year old Dicky (played by actress Xu Jiao), who struggles to fit in at an elite academy for grade-school overachievers. Unlike his classmates, Dicky is not from a wealthy family, but the son of a poor construction worker (played by Chow, who again pulls quadruple duty as writer, director, producer, and actor – and remains effortlessly in control on all fronts) who works long hours to pay the academy’s expensive tuition in hopes of giving his son a promising future. They share a one-room apartment in a crumbling building, and Chow’s character is forced to make ends meet by foraging in a garbage dump for clothing, school supplies, and other necessities. During one such excursion, he finds a strange green orb, which he brings home to Dicky. In Dicky’s hands, the orb shows its true nature, and transforms into a small creature with a green body and a round fuzzy head. Not only is it cooler than any toy the parents of his wealthy classmates can afford, Dicky’s new pet reveals it has the ability to remake what’s broken, renewing rotten apples and repairing appliances with rays it projects from its antenna, leaving Dicky wondering what other powers it might have in store.

Chow CJ7

While the adorable alien might seem like the blessing, its presence quickly begins to fuel the conflicts that are already brewing in Dicky’s life, and helps to put him further at odds with his classmates, his teachers, and his father.

Though working in a different genre, Chow employs his signature mise-en-scene of slapstick martial arts (playground conflicts turn into epic super powered showdowns), cartoon-style CGI effects (think Weta Workshop hijacked by Warner Brother cartoons), and references to mainstream American films (most noticeably Spy Kids and Mission Impossible 2).

Chow CJ7

Another trademark, Chow has again cast himself in the role of a character struggling against poverty. Though he originally intended to stay entirely behind the camera on CJ7, casting difficulties (and encouragement from his bosses) eventually put Chow in the film’s largest supporting role, one that was far less comedic than his previous works. And for fans of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, Chow’s is not the only familiar face in the film.

This aspect of the story is drawn from Chow’s own childhood, having been raised in a family that struggled with poverty. Particularly one scene in the film, in which Dicky throws a tantrum when he wants an expensive toy his father cannot afford, comes directly from Chow’s own childhood, where he once behaved similarly, at an age too young to comprehend how difficult it had been to his parents. 

Like his previous works, Chow draws on a gamut of inspirations, ranging from the comics and toy robots he played with as a child to Spielberg’s ET, a film which he says left a big impression on him. “How it evoked so many emotions in the audience… all this happiness and sadness throughout one film.” Another apparent influence is Charlie Chaplin, who Chow has been a fan of since childhood, and whose brand of slapstick Chow has kind of reinvented for the age of digital effects. What attracts Chow to Chaplin’s work? “The scene where he cooks and eats his shoe… it’s comedy, but its bittersweet.”

CJ7 Chow

Having started his acting career as the host of a children’s show, Chow has prior experience working with kids. The key to casting? “You have to pick a very smart, talented child star,” he says, then adds, “Not a stupid one.” This gets a smile from Jiao, who was a stood out amongst the competition during a casting session in which the young actors had to act out adult parts. Jiao had to pretend she was a big shot on Wall Street, and won out by giving a more in-depth interpretation than the other vying for the part.

Though the casting method might seem unusual, it works perfectly in a film set at a school where the kids are being groomed to be the next world leaders, and at times, act as though they already are.

Jiao says she was surprised to beat out so many other children, and was slightly nervous about cutting her hair in order to play against gender. Chow had no reservations about the actresses ability however, and reinforces that sheer talent is a major factor in casting when a film has a mere three month production schedule in which he knew he would be hard-pressed for rehearsal time.

At the moment, Chow has been linked to two roles in American remakes/updates, as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, and a revival of Bruce Lee’s (who is one of Chow’s childhood heroes and a major influence on his work) star-making character Kato opposite Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet. He says these are only slightly more than rumors at the moment, but confirms that there he is working on the scripts for and attached as a producer on both a filmic adaptation of Dragon Ball Z and another project entitled Journey into the West. There’s also a Kung Fu Hustle 2 in the works, though it will be more a sequel in spirit than a continuation of the first film, with a new cast of characters. He also says he would like to do a martial arts film in a more serious tone, and that he wants to act in more kung-fu roles before he gets too old.

So how is CJ7? Though directed at kids and families it’s arguably Chow’s most mature film to date, taking the themes of childhood, friendship, family, and poverty that he touched upon in Kung Fu Hustle, and exploring them in a deeper way. As stated earlier, all Chow’s directorial trademarks on are display. The alien is the cutest thing you’ll remember seeing on screen in a long time. All in all it’s the best kind of science fiction, using the extraordinary to tell a story about real people, real struggles, and real emotions.

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