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Hong Kong actor and film maker Stephen Chow describes his new film Changjiang Qihao (CJ7) as a science fiction film about love, or to be specific, the love between father and son.

The father-and-son relation was not touched on in his previous works; and science fiction is something new in Chinese cinema.

The story is about a child who becomes friends with an alien, in the form of a dog. If you can see a parallel between Chow's story and Steven Spielberg's E.T. you are right.

Chow's inspiration for this film began some 20 years ago when he saw E.T. at the theater. He was enthralled. "I watched it many times," Chow said while promoting the film last week in Beijing.

"I was amazed that science fiction could be filmed like that. I knew then I wanted to make a movie like that.

"Spielberg's work inspired me to become a director."

The comedian who grew up in a single-parent family is not a father yet and did not have that experience to draw from.

To add authenticity, Chow interviewed many fathers and also asked the child actors how their fathers behave. Memories of living with his own father, before his parents separated, also shed some light.

"My father would lie down and hold me up high in bed," Chow says.

Stephen Chow's CJ7 explores the father-and-son relationship. (file photo: China Daily)

"And I remember when I was young I wanted a toy, which made my father and mother quarrel on the street. These scenes all appear in the film."

Chow believes dogs are something both children and adults will love, so he cast a dog to play the alien.

In the film the computer-generated dog named Changjiang Qihao (CJ7, or Yangtze River Number Seven) has a big, white, furry head, cute black eyes and a green body. Chow confirms it is modeled upon his own pet BullBull.

BullBull was the first dog Chow bought. One day, after BullBull got cancer, it barked at Chow who was hurrying to work.

Chow did not pay attention, but later that day he was told BullBull had passed away. The guilt of not saying goodbye to his loyal friend was part of the driving force for his new work.

"The E.T. dog was the biggest challenge," Chow says.

"Most films need special effects, but in Chinese films a totally 3-D computer-generated dog has seldom tried before."

Stephen Chow (left) and CJ7star Zhang Yuqi

Chow invited top Hong Kong-based company, Menfond Electronic Arts, creator of the visual wonders in Jet Li's Fearless (Huo Yuanjia), to design the visual effects. Some of CJ7's facial expressions, however, were designed by Chow himself.

Supervisor Eddy Wong was given the task of employing the latest technology to translate Chow's vision to the screen.

The virtual dog was a challenge to Xu Jiao, a 10-year-old girl, who plays a boy in the film. Most of the time, Xu talked to an invisible dog. But her performance was praised by Chow.

"She is a born actor and genius," he says. "She's a better actor than me."

Xu was picked from some 10,000 young hopefuls, after an 18-month audition in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other cities.

The long-haired elementary school student is a trained actress and hosted children's art troupe in Ningbo, Zhejiang province, which is also Chow's ancestral hometown.

Chow says he knew instantly when he met Xu that she could perform the role well.

She burst into tears, however, when she discovered she had to cut her long hair to play a boy, though she did not cry for long.

"Hair can grow very long within a year, but opportunity won't wait a day," she says.

The girl's clever comment explains why she was chosen by the demanding Chow.

When speaking of her challenging role, Xu is modest.

"It wasn't that difficult," she says. "I play an innocent child, and I am an innocent child."

"CJ7 is a film that makes you laugh first and cry."

Chow admitted that CJ7 is a slight departure from his previous comedies featuring slapstick humor and lowbrow dialogue. But Chow hasn't lost his touch.

During the media screening, the audience burst into laughter more than 20 times. Most journalists were congratulatory, while some predicted that the film would help Chow enter the "200 million yuan (US$27 million) club" and break the box office record of Chow's own Kungfu Hustle, the second highest grossing film in Hong Kong, next to Titanic.

"This is a new kind of Chinese movie. But I hope audiences will like it," Chow says.

(China Daily January 29, 2008)

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