The majority of American film fans will only maybe know Jay Chou from The Green Hornet, the underrated Michel Gondry-directed, Seth Rogen / Evan Goldberg-scripted adaptation that cast the actor as actual hero Kato to Rogen's dim Hornet. In his home country of Taiwan, however, Chou rose to fame as a songwriter for numerous pop acts after an appearance on a televised competition show, then a major performer whose concerts sold out stadiums all over the world. He then set his sights on films, quickly becoming a major movie star, and worked his way up through music videos for himself and others to writing and directing feature films. The Rooftop is his second film, and the first of his efforts to get a home video release in the United States.
Chou plays Wax, a slightly arrogant, jobless young man who lives in a small community called "The Rooftop," which makes its home on top of a building in Galilee City, with a giant phonograph record player at the center. Wax spends his days hanging out with his buddies, Tempura (Alan Ko), Egg (Devon Song) and A-Lang (A-Lang), who frequently burst into spontaneous choreographed musical numbers, and staring longingly at a billboard across the way with a picture of Starling (Hsin Ai Lee), the girl of his dreams. They scrape by with clerking jobs from Dr. Bo (Eric Tsang), a pharmacist who sells his wares with elaborate stage performances, and through Tempura's job with the Central Housing Authority, which goes from business to business demanding payment. One day, Wax and the gang are collecting rent from a bathhouse when they stumble upon a film set, where Starling is shooting her latest picture. Wax quickly begins trying to woo Starling, much to the annoyance of the film's spoiled star, William (Darren Chiu).
The primary problems with The Rooftop stem from Chou's script, which is both overstuffed and underwhelming. The two primary threads (Starling and the Central Housing Authority) are basically old standbys, but The Rooftop not only lacks the invention to bring them to life in a unique way, but also fails to pull them together with much urgency or tension (the housing authority characters are introduced almost immediately, then disappear for nearly an hour while Chou focuses on Wax and Starling's relationship). Certainly, Chou's direction is meant to provide a level of pizzazz (the story, cartoon reality, and style of humor suggest Stephen Chow doing Moulin Rouge!), but the script weighs the film down at every turn, packed with too many scenes that contain some element of story or character development, but deliver those details in a bland or boring way. Even accounting for the fact that maybe some of the film's humor is simply lost in translation (I imagine someone could've done a more spirited job of rewriting some of the song lyrics in English), the film is frustratingly short on flair.
It doesn't help that the cast can't quite find a tonal foothold to instill the film with some coherency. Chou is a fine actor, but he plays Wax too blandly as a foil to Lee's demure Starling, rendering their courtship scenes mostly lifeless. For a film with elaborate musical numbers, The Rooftop lacks a vibrant, beating heart to pull the audience in. Behind Wax and Starling, the three guys are busy giving slapstick performances in the background, mugging and slapping each other. Both villains (Chiu, and Huang Huai Chen as Housing Authority thug Big Red), meanwhile, play it seriously in a way that is simply drowned out by the rest of the film -- a project like The Rooftop requires a little over-the-top menace for the bad guys to register.
What's most disappointing, though, is not the film's numerous drawbacks, but the way an occasional moment will shine through, suggesting a more charming film that didn't quite materialize. Two of the musical numbers in particular -- the one that cues up the first time Wax brings Starling to The Rooftop, and Wax's somber rainy day scene when he and Starling are separated -- crackle with a sweetness and energy that the whole film ought to have. The film also doesn't make enough use of Chou's incredible martial arts skills, which fuel a third top-notch number in a bathhouse where he and Tempura are meant to be collecting rent. These moments, spaced almost evenly throughout the film, were more than enough to give me hope that Chou would find a way to bring the rest of the film up to its full potential...alas, we'll just have to see if the third time's the charm.
The Rooftop has artwork that sort of shows Chou standing in front of the community in question, although his body kind of blocks out any meaningful look at the giant phonograph player or any other buildings. The title also has an inexplicable dash in it. The box copy and selected images probably portray this as more of a straight romance, failing to mention any of the film's martial arts sequences. The disc comes in an eco-friendly Vortex Blu-Ray case, with an insert advertising other Well Go USA titles.
The Video and Audio
The Rooftop's 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation is mighty frustrating. Detail and color are both generally fantastic, allowing the viewer to see every tiny detail of the film's numerous eye-popping sequences, from the opening titles through to the many musical numbers. Banding is extremely minimal, and although colors can bloom (the pink curtains of Dr. Bo's stage and Big Red's red hair are prime examples), this is the kind of movie where too bright is preferable to too subdued. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie is hounded by terrible black levels, which are so far from true black that even the widescreen bars are noticeably gray. Shots of the city skyline at night are particularly awful-looking, as well as scenes of Wax in his room. During the day, the brightness is hardly visible, as bright sunlight naturally lights the scenes, but any degree of darkness really brings the image down.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track in Mandarin is everything the picture would be without those pesky black levels. Each one of the film's numerous musical numbers, action sequences, and standard dialogue scenes are rendered with pulsing, lively precision, bringing the rear channels to poppy, thrilling life. Effects on the music are also quite vivid, whether it's the tinny "old radio" effect of the Rooftop's giant record player, or the natural ambiance in outdoor song-and-dance numbers. A Dolby Digital 2.0 Mandarin track and English subtitles are also provided.
The only extra is an original theatrical trailer, as well as a gallery of trailers for other Well Go USA films.
Although the merits of the film -- especially for the few fans Chou does have in the United States -- might've made this Blu-Ray disc worthy of a rental, the frustratingly uneven picture quality and complete lack of extras are enough to warrant a skip it.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.