Movie musicals are a tricky genre to work with, as the conventions associated with creating one have certainly evolved to suit the tastes of a new generation of filmgoers, but at the same time there must still be some effort to maintain an element of how musicals have been executed in the past. Added to the mix are the concerns of the director's creative freedom and the intentions he or she has with cast that's involved. Essentially, those working to add a little song and (maybe) dance to their narrative have to decide whether or not the film will stick to the standards of an actual film (e.g., Tom Hooper's very cinematic version of 'Les Misérables') or if it will stick closer to a filmed version of a stage production (e.g., 'West Side Story').
In his second effort as a writer-director-actor, Taiwanese pop star Jay Chou has clearly decided he favors the latter, resulting in the whimsically effervescent and colorfully staged musical 'The Rooftop,' which, to a certain degree, feels like 'West Side Story,' with its tale of Wax (Chou) and his group of friends living a blithe life amongst the disadvantaged folk who inhabit the rooftops of Galilee, only to have his world turned upside down when he comes face to face with the love of his life: the beautiful actress Starling (Li Xin'ai).
Wax and his friends come from the proverbial other side of the tracks, and so his love for Starling presents a problem, as her public image would suffer if it were to be revealed she was in the company of the disadvantaged rooftop folk. Making matters worse, the only avenue for Wax's upward mobility is through his close friend Tempura, who has recently taken a role as a debt collector for a local crime lord name Rango (Wang Xueqi). Through a musical display of his martial arts ability (yes, the film mixes the two genres with unapologetic glee), Wax catches the eye of both Rango and the director of Starling's new film, which happens to co-star the equally famous William (Darren Chiu), who has dreams of he and Starling becoming the entertainment world's newest power couple, and William won't let something as trite as actual romantic feelings get in the way. Adding to the intrigue is a local hood named Big Red (thanks to his garish spiked red hairdo), who has machinations for taking over Rango's territory and making a name for himself in the underworld. Big Red's path winds up crossing with Wax's after a night on the town with Starling and the rooftop boys results in the clash between the two gangs, which Big Red vows will turn bloody.
Chou manages to balance out the various plot threads fairly well, focusing mainly on Wax's interest in Starling, and then adding complication after complication – most of which are introduced through the largely expository musical numbers. This is where the film defines itself against other musicals: unlike 'Les Misérables,' let's say, 'The Rooftop' tends to position its musical sequences as breaks in the action, some of which further the plot, and some of which serve to explain it. There are several variations on them, and most have rather catchy tunes, and fun (if simple) choreographed sequences, while others manage to mix Chou's martial arts skills with a song or two, giving the film a sense of action and to integrate the movie-within-a-movie plotline central to Starling's character. It's these moments that become the film's best.
As enjoyable as most of them are, though, there's a touch of incongruence in the way the songs are presented – which tends to give the film a bifurcated feel. Not only is there a strange juxtaposition of the oppressive reality on the street level and the fantastical, almost surreal environment of the rooftops, but the musical interludes shown in each oscillate between the two styles with little justification as to why. There's nothing terribly wrong with this approach; it doesn't really detract from the film too much, but seeing as 'The Rooftop' wants to make some sort of clear demarcation between the rooftops and the city down below, the representations of both worlds might have been more profound had a more deliberate choice been made with the distribution of the musical numbers.
Odder still, 'The Rooftop' manages to be a fun and lively picture through about two-thirds of its runtime, but in the third act, however, the film makes such a dramatic tonal shift to a place that is so dark, brutal, and violent, its denouement and subsequent coda almost feel like they're from a different movie entirely. Again, this doesn't sink the film; it just causes it to drift from a surreal dreamscape into a slightly nightmarish zone that opens the door to a final sequence that appears so grounded in reality, it's as if the movie is waking from a fitful night's sleep. The result of this, then, is the question of what Chou's motives with final act were. Was he intentionally asking his audience to arrive at an uncertain place, or is this simply another layer of the strange fantasy that brought the rooftops of Galilee to life?
This is a strange, but strangely enjoyable film that is serious about what it's doing without taking itself too seriously. Jay Chou demonstrates he is a filmmaker who is cognizant of his strengths – pop music and martial arts – while showing some wrinkles regarding tone still need to be ironed out. In the end, it's an uneven picture, but one that is suggestive of the fantastic places Chou's career as a director could take him.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Rooftop' comes from Well Go USA Entertainment as a single 25 GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. The film is presented in its original Mandarin mix with optional subtitles for English and Chinese.
'The Rooftop' comes with a pristine 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that delivers the bright, vivid imagery of the film with near perfect clarity and detail. There is not a single frame here that looks soft, or out of focus; what's more, the deliberate cinematography, coupled with the stage-like atmosphere of some of the film allow it to drift even further into surrealism. But it's the way the transfer handles and presents the super saturated elements of the film that really make it stand out. The credit sequences that open and close the film are pulpy works of art, and they look tremendous here thanks to superb handling of color and contrast that keep the image looking sharp.
While there is a great amount of fine detail present as well, the one drawback of the image might be that it occasionally looks too sterile, too clean for its own good. This antiseptic look of the picture is a bit of a drawback during segments dedicated to the rooftops of Galilee, as it begins can sometimes take on an unpleasant or overly manufactured look that can be a tad distracting. It's not that the image looks bad; it's that it looks too good and otherwise less cinematic.
Overall, this is a terrific looking disc that manages to have far more pluses than minuses.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 has to pull double duty on 'The Rooftop,' as the film's dialogue must come across as cleanly and clearly as the lyrics and music to the songs. Thankfully, the mix manages to do justice to both, as this is a terrific sounding disc that is as capable of creating an immersive, atmosphere with simple things like the din of traffic, or a busy collection of street vendors as it is in shifting over to showcase musical interludes that have deep, rich, precise sound that surprisingly utilizes all the channels at the mix's disposal.
Most of the sound is admittedly front loaded; dialogue both spoken and sung typically comes through the center channel, while the musical elements are pumped dramatically through the front right and left speakers. Rear channels are there to pick up additional elements to add another layer to the sound, whether that be ambient atmospheric noise or different musical elements depends on what's happening on screen. For the most part, it sounds pretty great throughout, though it might have been nice for some deeper LFE effects in some places, as there was more than one section that felt as though it could have benefited from that.
All in all, though, this is a very nice, clean sounding mix that delivers a lot of sound in dynamic ways.
'The Rooftop' is certainly a fun, imaginative film that showcases Jay Chou's considerable talents and hints at his future as a visually impressive director. Some tonal issues aside, the movie makes good use of its surreal setting and lively pop-inspired musical numbers that actually work to enhance the story, rather than detract from it. Although it would have been nice to see some supplements here, the disc's image and sound wind up being truly top notch. Whether you're a fan of martial arts films, or a fan of musicals, chances are there's something here for you to enjoy.