After his wistful, lyrical directing debut, “Secret,” Mando-pop star Jay Chou makes a brash departure with “The Rooftop,” a raucous ‘70s action-musical about a group of slackers and their brawling, skirt-chasing escapades. Like a school pageant with a Broadway-sized budget, this noisy production is a pileup of extravagant dance numbers, candy-colored sets and vintage props that, sans the requisite heart or hip factor, soon overstays its welcome. Although the pic has secured releases in several Asian markets (as well as a Stateside run), it’s grossed only a middling $12.4 million so far in China and faces even more disappointing reactions in Chou’s native Taiwan.
Chou deserves credit for attempting a musical, not exactly a popular genre in Chinese cinema; perhaps the most contemporary example that comes to mind is 2005’s “Perhaps, Love.” But while the writer-director displayed considerable promise in “Secret,” “The Rooftop” feels more like a vanity project, enabling Chou to indulge in his love of fantasy and nostalgia (the vintage automobiles are a collector’s dream).
The setting is a fictional island called Galilee, and while computer-generated aerial shots suggest Mediterranean climes, the local architecture and ambience suggest Taiwan in the ’70s — specifically, a Taiwan served up for mainland consumption, where the night markets and rooftop communities feel strenuously, flamboyantly manufactured. Not a word of Taiwanese dialect has found its way into the dialogue, and the fact that the release title in China has been changed to “Tiantai aiqin” (Rooftop Love Affair), spelling out a concept alien to mainlanders, suggests a schizophrenic attempt to cater to pan-Chinese audiences.
Wax (Chou) and his ne’er-do-well buddies Tempura (Alan Ko), A-lang (A-lang Huang) and Egg (Devon Song) live in makeshift dwellings on a rooftop. They help out at an herbal pharmacy run by Dr. Bo (Eric Tsang), but care far more about their coiffure than their careers (several gags here are developed around their rock-star-inspired hairstyles, and Wax’s nickname, Langzigao, is derived from a brand of hair gel). Tempura makes a few bucks on the side collecting “rent” for local don Rango (Wang Xueqi), a job he’s so good at that Rango’s most ruthless henchman, Big Red (Eden Huang), feels threatened.
Wax, who has been crushing on the star of a shampoo ad, meets her in person and gallantly rescues her from gang harassment (or so he thinks). She turns out to be Starling (mainland newcomer Li Xinai), an aspiring actress working to pay off gambling debts that her father (Kenny Bee) owes to her influential co-star, William (Darren Chiu). When William, who has designs on Starling, detects her growing attachment to Wax, he enlists Big Red’s help to teach Wax and his gang a lesson.
Befitting a pop star of his prolific output, Chou composed 11 song-and-dance numbers for “The Rooftop,” staged with classic Broadway musicals like “West Side Story” in mind. At their best, the sequences reflect a playfully warped sensibility, matching props and costumes to curious, colorful effect: A prime example is a scene set in Dr. Bo’s pharmacy, where nubile nurses gyrate with lustful men in wheelchairs. Other showstoppers stage sexy hijinks or stylized fights against bizarre backdrops, such as a bowling alley or a traditional bathhouse.
Too bad the most diverting acts are frontloaded in the first 30 minutes or so, after which the narrative and performances run out of steam. The elaborate dance routines are shunted aside in favor of sequences tailored for Chou to play the kung-fu hero, and the mood becomes more boisterous as the visuals grow less exciting. The director has set himself the difficult task of gleefully sending up movie cliches and developing those same cliches into serious drama, with Big Red and William morphing from cartoonish goons into demonic villains and Starling reduced to damsel in distress. The overblown plotting reaches a nadir with an out-of-place sequence that pretentiously references “Rebel Without a Cause.”
Chou doesn’t so much act here as reinforce the cocky-yet-gawky image his fans find so irresistible; always on the move and at the center of the drama, he remains the film’s most watchable figure and its sustaining force. By contrast, his attractive co-star, Li, seems unable to muster more than either a smile or a frown, and her dubbed, Taiwanese-accented dialogue sounds gratingly unnatural. Chou has better chemistry with veteran thesp Ko, band singer Song and his regular lyricist A-lang Huang; as his buddies in real life, they know how to coast along onscreen without upstaging him.
Despite his florid shirts and campy swagger, eminent mainland thesp Wang Xueqi makes an incongruous Taiwanese gangster with his proper Mandarin accent and northern demeanor. Mainland thesp Xu Fan also sticks out as a rooftop resident, lacking the right groove in the dance scenes. Shaw Brothers action superstar John Chiang pops up in an odd cameo.
Tech credits reflect the hefty budget of about $10 million, with lenser Mark Lee Ping-bin giving the images his usual depth and luster. Top Hong Kong costume designer Dora Ng whips up a riot of colors with groovy bandanas and cutesy polka-dotted skirts. But the biggest show stopper is Yoshihito Akatsuka’s production design, making the rooftop look like a magical fairground and turning a set as mundane as the pharmacy into a veritable dance hall.