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December 09, 2013

The Rooftop

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Tian tai ai qing
Jay Chou - 2013
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A genre I admittedly enjoy is the musical. Not the big, overproduced kind based on Broadway musicals, with the exception of the first part of West Side Story, the part directed by Jerome Robbins. My taste is more towards MGM, when musicals were still viable, and there were modest budget productions like The Affairs of Dobie Gillis and Give a Girl a Break in between the most sumptuous work from Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. Maybe my preference is simply because those films were made specifically for a film audience rather than trying to reshape a work that originated on stage.

Stateside, he's known, if at all, as the man who would be Kato. In Asia, Jay Chou is big, big star. For The Rooftop, he created the story, directed the film, and wrote the music and has a hand in the eleven songs. And he's also the star of his own film, acting and singing. The only other person I can think of who would have had that many credits would be Charles Chaplin, except that Chaplin never sang.

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If there was ever a movie that could have used a "making of . . ." supplement, this is it. There seem to be a variety of influences at work here - a bit of Bollywood, as well as the sometimes tragic Shaw Brothers produced musicals directed by Umetsugu Inoue. Consciously on Chou's part or not, there is also the influence of Minnelli. The action takes place in an imagined city, Galilee, in an unspecified time somewhere near the middle of the 20th Century. The rooftop itself, a collection of various apartments, features a huge victrola, one of those original record players where music come out of a horn. Bread's 1971 hit, If is still beloved by the residents. Until the last scenes, which give way to dark realism, The Rooftop fully embraces filmmaking fakery.

It seems almost mandatory that such a film would have a show biz related story. In this case, it's a guy named Wax and his three buddies, who live in a ramshackle neighborhood built on top of other buildings, known as The Rooftop. They get by with odd jobs for a snake oil doctor who puts on a show before selling his goods. The four buddies have a ritual of greeting the girl on the giant billboard by their home. Following an accidental meeting with the girl, Starling, Wax finds himself temporarily with a job as a stunt double for his romantic rival, a movie star named William. There's also a subplot with the four buddies temporarily working on behalf of a rent collecting gangster with an out of control protege.

In terms of what might be expected within the genre, the musical numbers are unusually short. Some of the musical moments are diegetic, as when Starling records a song. Likewise, the scenes involving dancing are brief. It could well be that with the classic musical as many of us have known it virtually extinct, that Chou and company felt that anything longer and more fully developed might be rejected by an audience unfamiliar with Gene Kelly or Linda Lin Dai for that matter. Whether a "show stopper" whether in song or dance, or in combination, would be dismissed by Jay Chou's fans, we'll never know. One would hope that should Chou make another musical, he might find inspiration at allowing an extended flight of fancy as seen still by Bollywood filmmakers as well as the tribute to Fred Astaire with the dazzling single take song and dance in Step Up 3D.

Those familiar with Jay Chou will be the least surprised that one of the fight scenes plays out like a musical number. Other highlight include the opening scene with Eric Tsang as the questionable doctor, with male patients leaving their wheel chairs to dance with lasciviouslyā€ˇ dressed nurses. There is also a too short dance number in a bowling alley involving several identically dressed women, with the same bouffant hairstyle and glasses. The biggest misstep was to cast Hsin-ai Lee as the woman on the billboard. Pretty? Yes. But I'm going with the Viva Las Vegas rule where the leading man's best asset is an equally compelling leading lady. Lee's screen presence is sadly as weak as her singing.

The DVD itself is kind of cool, being made to resemble an old 45 rpm record.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 9, 2013 07:51 AM