“CJ7” is the story of a little boy named Dicky who struggles with school bullies, extreme poverty, tough homework, a girl who likes him, a different girl that he likes, problems communicating with his father (writer-director Stephen Chow), and an uncooperative extra-terrestrial super-pet. Dicky is played by the very talented Jiao Xu, who was selected after Chow auditioned nearly 10,000 children for the role. It did not concern Chow that Jiao Xu had almost no professional experience. And it did not concern him that Jiao Xu is a girl.
Some directors in that situation would rewrite the part to make the character a girl. Chow just cut off Jiao Xu’s hair and dressed her as a boy.
The performing arts have a long tradition of gender-switching. There are female-to-male gender disguises in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” “As You Like It,” and “The Merchant of Venice.” The top two on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best American comedies of all time are about male-to-female gender-switches, “Tootsie” and “Some Like it Hot.” But these are based on letting the audience in on the secret. The fact that the viewers know something that the characters do not is the essence of the story’s appeal. Because we know who and what the characters really are, the story can explore some of our assumptions and expectations about gender roles. And because we are experiencing it vicariously we enjoy the pleasure of watching the complications that arise from the misunderstandings and embarrassments.
But Jiao Xu is not playing a girl pretending to be a boy. Her real-life gender has nothing to do with the story-line. Chow expects that no one will notice and that we will just believe she is a boy the same way we believe her character is poor and has an outer-space pet. Nor is he making a statement about gender and identity as Todd Haynes did by casting six different actors, male, female, young, old, white, and black as his Bob Dylan character in “I’m Not There” or as Todd Solondz did in “Palindromes,” where eight different performers of different ages, genders, and races all portrayed a 13-year-old girl.
It may be that Chow did not want to change Dicky into a girl character because he thought audiences would react differently to some of the humiliations Dicky suffers in the film. But that is our issue, not his. Chow is not trying to break through boundaries; he is just ignoring them.
To make things even more complicated, there is the character of Maggie, the schoolgirl who has a crush on Dicky. Maggie is played by very large adult male with tiny little barrettes in his hair. Even though no one in the audience will miss the fact that actor Han Yong Wua is neither a child nor female, everyone will accept him as Maggie the way we accept Jiao Xu as Dicky, Meryl Streep with an accent, Ellen Page pretending to be pregnant, or Tyler Perry as Medea. Chow wanted Maggie to be big because her size makes a striking visual image and because it emphasizes Dicky’s subjective view of the scary prospect of the girl with a crush enlarged for comedic effect. To him, she appears to be the size of an ATM and the ground literally shakes when she walks. When she pushes the school bully, he snaps backwards as though he was fired from a slingshot.
Chow enjoys tweaking and even subverting familiar formulas. As in his previous films, “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” Chow creates a dizzying mash-up of sentiment and slapstick that some audiences will find unsettling but others will find refreshing. Although it is a story about a child with an inter-galactic pet, it is not the usual cozy heart-warmer. It is rated PG but it includes an epithet not permitted on broadcast television, “rude humor” that has Dicky pelted with space poop, and “thematic material” like corporal punishment and [spoiler alert] what appears to be the devastating death of a child’s only surviving parent.
Dicky’s first venture away from home with his new friend from outer space plays charmingly into the kind of magical empowerment we expect, with some delightfully imaginative special effects, only to turn into a “gotcha” moment as we and Dicky find out that the powers and motives of a space creature may not be what we thought.
Perhaps Chow’s central theme is elasticity, whether of the material world, with his cartoonishly exaggerated bending of physical reality or of what we think of as the parameters of genre and narrative. Or, more likely, he just thinks a very large girl who happens to be played by a man standing next to a very small boy who happens to be played by a girl makes a very funny sight.