The faraway gaze of a middle-aged actress leads the viewer directly to the vibrant soundstage of her past. But her memories are as fake as the movies she made. This isn’t the message of The Rooftop, but that’s how it plays out. Taiwanese singer-songwriter-actor Jay Chou’s action-comedy-musical is self-consciously artificial, from stylized sets to campy acting to boosted colors that create garish saturated pinks and unfortunate color fringing. Chou wrote, directed, scored, and stars in the film, an ambitious personal vision of movie magic that recalls the artifice of 1980s films like Absolute Beginners and One from the Heart, both ambitious failures in their own right. Those movies, however flawed, had their musical and visual charms. The Rooftop has problems in every department, but it all starts with tone.
The memories that unfold take place among the poor residents of rooftop tenements in bustling Galilee, which looks like something right out of movie musicals. Gangland strife recalls West Side Story, but the movie’s (and Chou’s) references have more in common with disco-era fodder like Can’t Stop the Music and Grease 2. Wax is a fan of actress Starling (Hsin Ai Lee), whose face watches over the rooftop from a billboard. The rooftop’s young men inadvertently walk into the world of make-believe when Wax interrupts a film shoot thinking that his beloved Starling is under attack.
The tension between past and present, real and fantasy, poverty and escape, has a lot of dramatic potential. But the movie celebrates its fakery too well. The knowing, broad comedy undermines any sympathy you might have for Wax and his impoverished friends. Music and fashion are unfocused, with hippies, greasers, and hip-hop production numbers battling covers of Bread’s “If” for airplay on an unsuccessful mix tape of a soundtrack.
Cinematographer Mark Lee Bing Ping replaced Christopher Doyle on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. At times it’s painfully clear that Chou hopes some of Wong’s visual and thematic DNA rubs off. But the movie falls well short of its aspirations. I don’t know what the film would have looked like without the horrible, over-saturated post-processing, but it’s a distraction throughout the movie. If The Rooftop looked better, if its music was less insipid, its dance numbers more inspiring, its actors more convincing, it could have been a wonderful, vivid piece of movie magic. But it never leaves the ground.