Up until a few years ago, Jackie Chan’s appearance in a foreign martial arts film assured my full attention. Sure, there were plenty of other Hong Kong mainstays churning out more intense material and better films, but Chan always managed to do it in style, offering fans variety and creativity that wasn’t readily available elsewhere. At least that’s what I believed before I encountered a little film called ‘Shaolin Soccer.’ Defying all genre stereotypes with joyful abandon, writer/director/actor Stephen Chow’s fusion of sports and kung fu was a revelation. Before I could even catch my breath, I found myself soaking in Chow’s brilliant follow-up, ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ -- a personal favorite I’ve since watched more times than I care to count.
Chow’s latest effort, ‘CJ7,’ once again defied my expectations. Pulling away from the kinetic absurdity of ‘Shaolin Soccer’ and the lengthy fights of ‘Kung Fu Hustle,’ ‘CJ7’ tells the charming story of a poor man (played by Chow himself) who finds an orb in a junkyard, mistakes it for a discarded toy, and takes it home to his young son, Dicky (Jiao Xu). When the ball turns out to be an extraterrestrial creature, the boy dreams of finally gaining popularity amongst his fellow classmates. Sadly, just as he begins to make friends and connect with the cuddly alien, a tragedy leaves Dicky in shambles and forces him to confront the harsh realities of life.
’CJ7’ is most certainly a Stephen Chow film -- his signature humor, visual gags, and exaggerated slapstick sequences are more subtle here, but they appear nonetheless. Fans should be warned, however, that this outing is initially more akin to a French fairy tale (ala ‘Amelie’) than a logical entry in Chow’s canon. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but people craving ‘Kung Fu Hustle 2’ (due in 2010) may find themselves growing bored with a quieter examination of lower class life in Hong Kong. Mystical and supernatural elements are still on tap, but they appear as imaginary sequences and, to a lesser degree, as manifestations of the alien creature’s powers.
However, while Chow’s slower pace and sweeter disposition may disappoint some, I was utterly entranced by the film’s depiction of a father/son relationship, its childlike perspective on the struggles of lower class peoples, and its knack for warming the heart without resorting to lazy or manipulative tactics. As a father myself, watching Chow’s character feel sorrow when he can’t afford something for his son and regret in the midst of discipline was all too familiar. The director genuinely hits a perfect balance between the discrepancy between the things we do as parents and the things we sometimes feel. Better still, the third act takes a sharp left turn that reinforces the purpose of the film and helps deliver a satisfying conclusion.
Is ‘CJ7’ perfect? That’s debatable. For all of its whimsical interludes and resourceful flights of fancy, the film doesn’t reinvent its particular genre like ‘Shaolin Soccer’ and ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ did. Don’t get me wrong, Chow hits plenty of satisfying notes and weaves a wonderfully engaging fairy tale, but the whole doesn’t feel as revolutionary as I had hoped. While nods to ‘Gremlins,’ ‘E.T.,’ ‘Millions,’ and a horde of other internationally renowned children’s films are utilized to great effect, the film doesn’t feature a defining climax of its own. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps -- had ‘CJ7’ come from any other filmmaker, I probably wouldn’t be placing a lot of weight in such relatively minor nitpicks.
Ultimately, ‘CJ7’ is a beautiful little story that shows Chow is capable of more than high-flying comedy, manga-infused martial arts, or cartoonish slapstick. While genre fans who fell in love with ‘Kung Fu Hustle’ and ‘Shaolin Soccer’ may balk at the prospect of a more intimate family film, cinematic junkies will probably enjoy this one as much as I did. People can debate the merit of his martial arts comedies all day long -- ‘CJ7’ proves that Chow isn’t a one-note comedian bound by the limitations of his favorite genre.
While I no longer have the HK import edition of 'CJ7' on hand to make a proper comparison, Sony's domestic Blu-ray appears to deliver an identical visual presentation. First and foremost, the disc features a striking 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that does a fine job juggling color and detail to create a lush, vibrant world. While the palette is a bit bleak at times, Chow uses blues and greens to deliver three-dimensional exterior shots and lovely interior scenes. Contrast is spot on, skintones are natural and well-saturated, and blacks are nearly flawless (only a trio of poorly lit nighttime shots take a toll). Better still, the transfer doesn’t suffer from artifacting, edge enhancement, source noise, or DNR.
Fine object detail is impressive as well, boasting sharp textures, clean edges, and crisp strands of hair. When Dicky’s father visits the junkyard, it’s easy to make out every lump of trash in the decrepit junk pile -- newspaper text is crystal clear, flecks of rust are properly defined, and every grain of static on a malfunctioning television looks fantastic. Every now and then the alien’s mane looked a bit muddled to me, but the haziness appeared to be the result of grafting the creature into bright interior shots.
My only real complaint is that the high-def transfer makes CG enhanced elements stick out from the rest of the image. I expected the alien itself to look slightly artificial, but other objects (particularly insects like flies and cockroaches) are unusually disjointed from the backgrounds. Of course, this is hardly the fault of the transfer and doesn’t warrant much attention. All in all, ‘CJ7’ isn’t as refined as the latest and greatest BD releases, but it comes really close.
‘CJ7’ includes a pair of decent Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks (in Mandarin and English) that give both sub-readers and dub-fans a proper lossless audio presentation. Dialogue is crisp, perfectly prioritized, and evenly distributed across the front channels. Although the film revolves around conversations and personal interactions, LFE support piped up on more than one occasion to imbue spaceships and steel girders with power and resonance. The soundscape itself moves about the soundfield naturally as well, boasting transparent pans, accurate directionality, and attention to detail that made immersion quick and simple. To top it all off, the rear speakers help extend the film’s fairly front-heavy soundfield with convincing acoustics and delicate ambience.
I do have one notable gripe -- several lines have clearly been looped in post-production. Reading subtitles may distract some from noticing such an issue, but I rely on the actors’ intonation even though I’m reading their words. As a result, I continually noticed scenes in which line volume and integrity would vary. Granted, it’s a minor problem that doesn’t overly detract from the experience, but it’s still an annoyance worth mentioning. Otherwise, ‘CJ7’ presents a faithful soundtrack that handles everything it’s given with ease. The mix doesn’t have a lot to deal with aside from dialogue, but the TrueHD tracks are strong enough to satisfy fans.
(Please note that the film's subtitles appear overtop of the bottom black bar.)
The HK import didn't have any special features, but the domestic Blu-ray edition of ‘CJ7’ includes the same supplemental content as the standard DVD. While the featurettes are presented in SD, they still offer fans a fairly thorough and candid guided tour of the production.
Sure, ’CJ7’ isn't the next great Stephen Chow martial arts comedy, but it is a wonderfully charming family flick with a lot to offer filmfans of all tastes. Better still, the Blu-ray edition features an excellent video transfer, a pair of faithful TrueHD audio tracks, and a decent collection of supplements that includes a laugh-out-loud cast and crew commentary. It may not be the hottest release on the block or rise to the level of a mind-blowing demo disc, but it'll definitely make for a great Friday night at home with the kids.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.