Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review - The Rooftop

July 25, 2013

The Rooftop – Taiwan, 2013

Jay Chou’s latest film, The Rooftop, is a film that never truly knows what it wants to be. It starts out as a musical about four young men from a poor, yet joyful community, adds a love story between a budding film actress and one of the young men, and tops is off with a subplot involving gangsters and tax collection that eventually dominates the film and destroys the child-friendly fun that the film works so hard to create early on. Its sets are as colorful and creative as its story is unoriginal and disjointed, and two of its most inspired moments involves a “doctor” attempting to break out into song and a shadow puppet performance that will bring a smile to even the most hard-to-please reviewers. Unfortunately, these moments are both over before they truly have a chance to develop.

The film seems to have taken some of its inspiration from Bollywood, for perhaps that is the only other place that would use a vicious gang rumble as an occasion for a musical number and call it entertainment. The film’s more serious elements reminded me slightly of Baz Luhrmann’s wildly original Moulin Rouge, the difference being that Luhrmann never felt the need to surround Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor with comic characters that act as buffers to the film’s more dramatic – and violent – subplots.

The plot of The Rooftop is all over the place, but it basically boils down to a few tried-and-true storylines – a poor guy meets a woman who’s out of his league, a gangster wants to move up in the world but is held back by his boss, and a spoiled star schemes to have a starlet all to himself. We’ve seen these before, and in truth, we’ve seen them done better. As Wax, the head of the Rooftop gang, Jay Chou is rather likeable, but he is hurt by the inconsistencies in the script, and moments that should be dramatic end up being less involving than they should be. His co-star, Li Xin’ai, does as well as she can, but her inexperience shows. Having said that, the two of them do share some nice moments together, and these moments are enough to convince me that they can do more than they were able to convey in this film.

What works in the film – and I wish more time had been devoted to it – is the Rooftop community. Like the Lost Boys from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the residents of the Rooftop never truly have to grow up. They spend their days cracking jokes, working out, flirting with their female neighbors, and admiring the beautiful woman in the enormous billboard nearby. Periodically, they break into song and dance all over the bridge-like structures that decorate their rooftop commune. In their small private rooms, they communicate through the building’s pipe system. I liked how each of them had a number of taps assigned to them, and this resulted in several humorous and inventive mistaken connections. The boys even have a Wendy-like character who makes sure they are fed and who dispenses some rather motherly pearls of wisdom. These scenes are so filled with energy and spirit that I found myself wishing for more of them.

What also works in the film is the love story. It begins rather nicely and progresses at a surprisingly realistic pace. A visit to an island night market called Lover’s Lake is one of the film’s better scenes, and at the screening I attended, it elicited its fair share of laughs. As in most Taiwanese films, much of what we see of Wax and Starling’s relationship involves their slow, halting courtship, and there is only the slightest hint of physical contact between them. This is partly due to Wax’s rather inconvenient habit of freezing up whenever the subject of feelings is broached, yet it also the result of his inherent decency. Wax’s nervousness and gentlemanly behavior is contrasted effectively with the inappropriate advances and schemes of one of the film’s protagonists, a film superstar known only as William.

Unfortunately, by the end of the film, there is little to remind viewers that the film started out as a light-hearted romantic comedy, for those family-friendly elements of the plot give way completely to the film’s much darker plot points. This makes a degree of sense given what has transpired in the film leading up to that point, but it is jarring nonetheless. It reminded me a bit of From Dusk Till Dawn, Robert Rodriguez’s “drama” about two escaped convicts making a run for it that suddenly transforms into a vampire film. That film handled its transition as well as it could. However, The Rooftop’s radical switch takes the film in such an alarming and unwanted direction that several people in the audience with me looked away from the screen. It was plainly not what they wanted to see.

Regular readers of my reviews probably know by now that I have a soft spot for films from Taiwan, so it won’t surprise anyone that I genuinely wanted to like The Rooftop. With Jay Chou as its director and star, it is one of the few films from Taiwan that has a genuine chance of receiving an international release. It says something therefore that even I am unable to find much to praise it for. Its musical numbers are hit-and-miss, and for all the wonder and amazement that the rooftop created, the film ultimately left me feeling empty inside. It is a reminder that a film can be visually stunning and still fall flat. (in theaters in Asia and in limited release in the United States)

2 and a half stars  

*The Rooftop is in Mandarin and Taiwanese with English subtitles.

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