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Rooftop, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A musical with extra everything."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Rooftop" is overstuffed, like Jay Chou had a half-dozen ideas for his 1960s Taiwanese musical project and couldn't decide exactly which ones he wanted to use. So he threw in all of them, even if they don't always do much for the main story of Wax and Starling, two lovebirds from different sides of the tracks. But better that than saving good stuff for a second chance that may never come, especially since it gives this movie a chance to make the audience smile in every minute.

Heck, it doesn't even look like Wax is the main character of the movie to start with; it seems to focus on his handsome pal Tempura (Oh Yau-lun), who lives in the poor "rooftop district" but has a job collecting rent for local landlord "Rango" (Wang Xue-qi) that his friends Wax (who knows kung fu but prefers to use his switchblade comb to make an impression), Egg (Song Jian-zhang), and and A-Lang (Huang Jun-lang) help him out with; they also work for Dr. Bo (Eric Tsang Chi-wai), who has a floor show at the shop where he sells patent medicines. But while Wax is earning the enmity of rival rent collector Big Red (Huang Huai-chen), Wax is falling for the lovely Starling (Li Xin-ai), who seems to have everything but has to work hard to climb out of the debt that her father (Kenny Bee) has gambled them into, even though she doesn't particularly like her co-star William (Darren Chiu).

And there's more, to the point where it's kind of a mercy that Egg and A-Lang don't have prominent subplots, because that's a thing that very easily could have happened. For all that there are a whole ton of characters all sort of doing their own thing, writer/director/star/composer Chou does a remarkably good job at keeping things from flying off in every direction than you'd think. It's not even that everything folds back into a main storyline; every scene just seems very well-linked, whether it be by running jokes, plots which intersect, or just minor bits that show the rooftop residents as a community, so that what happens with one naturally draws the others in. The story does take a hard turn or two to get to the big action sequence in the end with a somewhat extreme tone shift, but it doesn't quite go off the deep end like it could.

Part of the reason that the sudden violence at the climax seems weird is that up The Rooftop is a pretty upbeat musical, and one can fall into the trap of expecting those to finish up with everybody dancing until the villains realize the errors of their ways. And even then, this movie is a lot of fun, with Chou contributing ten songs that will probably get good and stuck in the heads of anybody who knows Mandarin (and even some who don't). The world Chou creates in the Rooftop district of Galilee is so rich, filled with bright colors and musical numbers and martial arts action, that it's an utter delight to let it envelop the viewer completely; sure, it's goofy that one character lives in a shack which is a giant working gramophone, but also awesome, and the way that shape is incorporated into the Chinese characters of the film's title doesn't hurt one bit. Unlike a lot of musicals which come from the stage and unconsciously seem bound by its limitations, this one has its characters dance their way through some big, elaborate environments, from the rooftops to a night market riddled with canals to a bowling alley. There's a reason to say "look at that!" test in almost every scene.

Heck, Chou actually manages the trick of getting the same energy from the musical numbers as from the action scenes, which should happen more often than it does with movies that try to do both (ideally, each is a way to express emotion and advance the plot through physical performance). Even when you ignore just how many other hats Chou is wearing here and how many things he has to do just as a performer, what he manages is something of a tour de force. It doesn't look like one, though, because Wax is well-integrated into the ensemble, so everyone else has room to do his or her thing: Li Xin-ai is delightfully sweet as Starling, managing to display both the natural grace that attracts Wax without it countering how she obviously feels like a fish out of water in his world. Huang Huai-chen is hugely and hilariously aggressive as Big Red, and Huang Jun-lang steals a bunch of scenes as the funniest of the core group of buddies. And lots of actors in small roles, whether they be Xu Fan as the rooftop's "big sister", Eric Tsang as the hustling Dr. Bo, or any of a dozen others, unfailingly hit just the right note and add a little more to the movie.

Get enough people doing that, in front of the camera and behind, and you wind up with something pretty special. Sure, "The Rooftop" is sprawling and sometimes exhausting because Chou is trying to do so very much in two hours, but there are also darn few moments of it that aren't thoroughly entertaining. It will leave viewers worn out, but generally with smiles on their faces.

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originally posted: 09/13/13 14:27:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  19-Jul-2013 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Dec-2013


  DVD: 10-Dec-2013

Directed by
  Jay Chou

Written by
  Jay Chou

  Jay Chou
  Alan Ko
  Eric Tsang
  Xueqi Wang

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