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 Video and Audio
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.