The Rooftop: Film Review

Jay Chou in "The Rooftop"
An over-emphasis on style over substance results in a film trying to thrive on multiple genres and succeeding in none.

Taiwanese pop idol Jay Chou’s sophomore directorial effort revolves around a small town tough's ill-advised pursuit of a starlet, channeled through a mix of musical numbers, martial arts moves and melodrama.

Usually it’s desperate, first-time directors who, for fear of not having a second stab at their dream job, proceed to stuff their debut with everything they want to say -- usually involving a fantastical version of themselves as the protagonists -- in every kind of aesthetic (and visual gimmickry) they want to dabble in. So it’s probably a surprise that Jay Chou would do exactly that with The Rooftop, given his experience (this is his second film) and his pedigree (he’s one of the biggest pop stars in Chinese-speaking markets, and boasts a stint in Hollywood courtesy of his turn as Kato in the misfired reboot of The Green Hornet).

Unfortunately, Chou’s artistic ambitions have proved to be misguided, as his genre-hopping mix of musical numbers, martial arts moves and melodrama only ended up glaringly incoherent, and lacking the subtlety and storytelling nous he attained with his surprisingly lyrical 2007 debut The Secret. By reaching for the stars, The Rooftop has caved in on itself, revealing a hollow core within its all-dancing, all-singing and gags-galore veneer.

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Hardly setting the home front on fire -- the film opened in mainland China and Taiwan early July before bowing in Hong Kong on August 1 -- the film is highly unlikely to break out of Asian-themed festivals worldwide (such as the New York Asian Film Festival, where it made its international premiere last month before its Well Go-backed limited release in the U.S. on July 19).

Taking its cues from past genre benchmarks from West Side Story to Kung Fu Hustle, The Rooftop deploys sweeping, widescreen cinematic tropes to bring about the frustrations and dreams of the 20th century urban working-class, their earthiness and care for the collective good deployed as the starting-point of high drama to come. Set in a fictional Chinese-speaking city called Galilee -- a place bearing the traits of 1930s Shanghai (with mobsters being the de facto rulers of the realm) and the U.S.-influenced Taipei in the 1960s (as suggested by the hairstyles and favorite haunts of the local street punks) -- the film’s title alludes to the sky-high community from which its protagonists hail from, a quartet of young men led by Wax (played by Chou himself).

And the first quarter of the film certainly plays like the “martial arts musical” Chou has promised to deliver, as the Problematic Four attempt to break out of their humdrum life (as workers in a Chinese clinic which offers – what else? – thumping dance shows to help customers down their bitter medication) by getting into skirmishes with thugs as a way to pass the time and also to help one of the gang, the pretty-faced Tempura (Alan Ko), “collect rents” in the name of the local clansman Rango (mainland Chinese thesp Wang Xueqi).

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But all these loud, retro-overkill visual antics are soon revealed to be merely the supporting elements to the tragic-romance trope which Chou has previously delivered with poise in Secret. And it’s here that The Rooftop morphs from its original rebellious-youth-flick guise into Notting Hill, as Wax falls in and then out of love with the model-turned-actress Starling (Li Xin’ai) -- with the Richard Curtis film’s influence on Chou clearly shown by a sequence depicting the dismayed, heartbroken young man walking around town surrounded by umbrellas, billboards and all kinds of knick-knacks bearing his paramour’s visage.

It’s a scene which speaks volumes about The Rooftop’s flaws: seemingly obsessed with peppering his film with fantastical widescreen grandstanding, Chou has overlooked the need to inject characterization, context and convincing dialog into the proceedings.

Perhaps paying too much time in getting the visual pyrotechnics and mise-en-scene correct, the human element -- that is, the acting -- has fallen by the wayside too: with Chou letting his ego run wild by playing Wax as a poseur, and Li -- who is making her acting debut here -- not helping matters with her blank-faced, squeaky-voiced turn.

With Wang and Xu Fan -- who plays the four ruffian’s sisterly neighbor Jasmine -- getting limited screen time and the two Hong Kong veterans Eric Tsang and Kenny Bee constricted by roles which are more a digression (for Tsang, who plays the cocky herbalist Wax works for) or a type (for Bee, as Starling’s protective father), opportunities for a substantial supporting player to salvage the situation are rendered very thin.

Stripping bare of the bombast, The Rooftop could have served as a competent (if a bit much-revisited) sepia-tinged romantic drama about the hopes and fantasies of a young man who has bitten off much more than he can chew, and is left to reflect on the consequences of his overreaching acts. As it stands now, Chou is actually left to ponder exactly the conundrum his on-screen alter-ego confronts.


Opened in the North American on July 19

Production Companies: Chuang Ying Pictures Entertainment, presented by Evergrande Films, Talent Television Film and Edko Films

Cast: Jay Chou, Alan Ko, Li Xin’ai, Eric Tsang, Wang Xueqi, Kenny Bee, Xu Fan

Director: Jay Chou

Screenwriters: Jay Chou

Producers: Jimmy Huang, Will Liu

Executive producers: Wu Xuedan, Wu Hongliang, J.R. Yang, Bill Kong

Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping-bin

Production designer: Yoshihito Akatsuka

Costume designer: Dora Ng

Editor: Wenders Li

Music: Huang Yu-hsun and Jay Chou

U.S. Distributor: Well Go USA

International Sales: Edko Films

PG, 117 minutes