Disclaimer: Please watch the film before reading…
Finally, Mr Jay’s second directorial extravaganza is out! After a successful ‘The Secret’ (不能說的秘密) debut in 2007, the ever ambitious Mr Jay spent great effort and a lot of $$$ to produce ‘Rooftop’ (天台[爱情]). I was very curious to watch this film that had consumed him and perhaps caused him to be distracted and thus resulted in the lackluster ‘Opus 12’ album and unsatisfactory ‘Opus’ concert. Mr Jay guarded the film fiercely during the production and there were minimal leakages. Other than knowing that the film is a musical and that the female lead is a newbie Li Xina (李心艾), I did not know what to expect when I entered the theatre.
During the ‘康熙来了’ interview, Mr Jay expressed high expectations for the film. His ardent desire for awards was clearly shown by how he confidently presented the film. After watching the interview, I was rather worried that the film may not be good and Mr Jay will suffer another setback like the atrocious ‘Treasure Hunter’ (刺陵).
So how is the film? Well, it is not perfect and kudos to Mr Jay for his colossal effort and vision. As a pioneering Chinese kongfu-musical in East Asia, the film is very refreshing and deserves a place in the flourishing Taiwanese cinema. In the past few years, Taiwanese New Cinema Wave has been attracting international attention with well-acclaimed films like ‘Cape No. 7’ (海角七号), Monga (艋舺), ‘Starry Starry Night’ (星空) and the recent ‘GF*BF’ (女朋友.男朋友). While ‘Rooftop’ may not be as aspiring as these award-winning awards, it tries to break the boundaries of the musical genre and establishes itself as a ‘diao’ artistic creation that rightfully belongs to Mr Jay’s impressive repertoire of achievements.
I may offend some fans who adore the film as I highlight some of the flaws in the film. It is very clear that all hard-core fans will definitely love the film. It is truly a film for the fans – 粉丝电影. Most fans will imitate this signature pose shown in the poster. Many people are doing it already – even the Taiwanese celebrity Wilber Pan (潘玮柏).
Set in 1970s/1980s, Mr Jay constructs authentic sets that capture the nostalgia of that period in Taiwan. The most interesting set is the ‘Rooftop’ residence where Mr Jay, the hero Lang Zi Gao (浪子膏), and his beloved fellow ‘Rooftop’ folks live. A well-known perfectionist, Mr Jay devotes great attention to details. From the mammoth antique gramophone to the mahjong table, the exquisitely designed set is the soul of the film -上有天堂 下有天台. Mr Jay creates a strong sense of camaraderie and community spirit amongst the ‘Rooftop’ folks and stresses this mantra: 我们天台人就算平凡, 也可以活得不平凡 (Even though we, the ‘Rooftop’ folks, are ordinary but we can live extraordinarily). Some of the dance sequences featuring the ‘Rooftop’ folks are quite enjoyable. Mr Jay inserts some classic love ballads into the film soundtrack like ‘If’ by Bread and Santa Esmeralda’s ‘You’re my everything’. The ‘shadow play’ Valentine’s Day scene, which features the song ‘手语’, contributes to the romantic atmosphere on the rooftop when Mr Jay courts his lady in a typical suave ‘Jay’ fashion.
Undeniably, Mr Jay is a talented musician and his strength lies in his music. Hence, the strongest aspect of the film is the fascinating series of musical segments. With his musical brilliance, Mr Jay composes some catchy tunes and innovative dance arrangements. The film starts with first musical scene in the medical hall (波记中药店). The song is a ‘China Wind’ song that is similar to ‘Compendium of Materia Medica’ (本草纲目). The dance choreography is quite refreshing as Mr Jay integrates the traditional Chinese medical practices like acupressure and ‘tui na’ with hip hop dance moves. The combination of Eastern traditional elements and Western popular musical style is an unprecedented form of musical performance that is not seen in any Western musicals.
Mr Jay defines the film as a hybrid of music and Chinese martial arts (kong fu). Throughout his illustrious career, Mr Jay actively promotes the Chinese culture, especially Chinese kongfu as seen in his China Wind songs like ‘Nunchucks’ (双截棍) and ‘Dragonfist’ (龙拳). Like his ‘China Wind’ songs, his films like ‘Kongfu Dunk’ (功夫灌篮) and ‘The Green Hornet’ (青蜂侠) always showcase his ‘kongfu’ prowess. Similarly, in ‘Rooftop’, there is quite a number of ‘kongfu’ scenes. One of the most outstanding ‘kongfu’ scenes occurs in the bathhouse. The newly muscular Mr Jay must definitely charm his fans with his famous ‘8 packs’ and this ‘bathhouse’ scene should fulfill the female fans’ carnal desire. Topless and flaunting his manly physique in full ‘Jay’ glory, Mr Jay fights his opponents with invincible ‘kongfu’ while he moves gracefully to Spanish music that is mixed with sounds from the traditional Chinese instruments. The fighting/dancing choreography (打架舞) is an invigorating hybrid of ‘Tango’, ‘Pasodoble’ (bull-fighting) dance and ‘kongfu’ stunts. This hybrid of West and East is common element of Mr Jay’s style as shown by how he infuses ‘Bossa Nova’ music in his song ‘Rosemary’ (迷迭香).
The incongruous mixing of musical elements and dance movements generates humour and increases the entertainment quotient of the film. There is also another fighting sequence in the ‘Lovers’ Lake Night Market’ (情人湖夜市). Mr Jay improvises and uses Taiwan sausages as ‘nunchucks’ to fight his enemies. Somehow Mr Jay has a ‘nunchucks’ fetish – which is his favorite weapon that is employed everywhere (even the song is used as the ending credits song in ‘The Green Hornet’). Other than fighting, the charismatic Mr Jay also woos his lady in the night market. The fighting and wooing scenes truly exemplify the narcissism of Mr Jay as he displays his ‘diaoness’ in full grandeur.
Another unique musical sequence echoes Mr Jay’s critique of the ‘paparazzi’ culture in Taiwanese media. Mr Jay has infamous clashes with the intrusive paparazzi rather frequently and he outrightly labels them as ‘dogs’. He mocks the paparazzi in the musical sequence that depicts many reporters in Sherlock Holmes-like attire snooping around the clones of starlet, Xina, whose popularity is tarnished by negative reports of her love affair with the pauper, Lang Zi Gao. The garishly decorated set attracts the audience’s attention instantly. The creative manipulation of the typography of the newspapers during the energetic dance number is visually stunning. To a small extent, this ‘paparazzi’ number reflects the playful spirit that is similar to the famous ‘We both reached for the gun’ sequence in ‘Chicago’.
I was quite impressed by the emo ‘哪里都是你’ sequence where the heart-broken Mr Jay strolls through the streets forlornly as the images of his lady haunted him. The cinematography of this scene is very professionally done. The use of the ‘graphic match’ editing complements the lyrics of the song as Mr Jay sees the image of his lady everywhere – from the bus to poster to umbrella. My friend, a diehard Mr Jay’s fan, hyperventilated during this scene and said that Mr Jay does not have to make a music video for this song as this scene is so brilliant.
As I was watching the film, I had a sneaking suspicion that Mr Jay had the help of good cinematographers and photographers. After I conducted some research, my suspicions were verified. The director of photography (摄影指导) is Lee Ping Bin (李屏宾). Lee has worked with world-renowned directors like Wong Kar Wai and Hou Hsiao-Hsien before. He won numerous awards for his achievements in ‘In the Mood for Love’ (花样年华). Next, the art director (美术指导) is Akazuka Yoshihito (赤冢佳仁). A Japanese film graphic designer and visual artist, he worked with Quentin Tarantio for ‘Kill Bill’ set design. The art/costume design director (造型指导) is Miss Dora (吴里璐) who won awards for ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’ (十月围城). The action director (动作指导) is Liang Ji Yong (梁吉泳) who worked with legendary Korean director, Park Chan-Wook and his representative works are ‘Old boy’ and ‘The Host’. The visual effects producer (视觉特效制片) is Shengzhong Hu (胡陞忠) who was involved in some Hollywood productions and the big budget Taiwanese epic drama ‘Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale’ (赛德克·巴莱). With the help of these veterans in the film industry, it is no wonder that ‘Rooftop’ looks professional and sleek. Mr Jay must have spent great effort to court these cinematic experts and collaborate with them for his masterpiece.
Unfortunately, while the cinematography and editing are masterfully executed, the flimsy script written by Mr Jay is unable to carry the weight of his lofty expectations. The ambitious Mr Jay attempts to do too much in the film. On one hand, he wants to tell a touching love story like ‘The Secret’ or even ‘Titanic’. On another hand, he tries to tell a story of brotherhood and friendship like ‘Monga’. Moreover, with the night market scene, he seems to be filming a mini version of the ‘Night Market Hero’. Not satisfied with a simple musical, he also aims to make a kongfu, action-packed film with fighting scenes, which look like they are extracted from ‘Kong Fu Dunk’ and ‘The Green Hornet’, and some Initial D’ inspired car-racing scenes.
As a result of his confusing goals, the fragmented film falls apart in terms of coherence and continuity. The film becomes an unrefined mosaic of musical sequences. Li Jing Wei (李京蔚) called the film a ‘MV连续剧’ which resembles an extended Mr Jay’s music video while the critic from Zhang Wei (张玮) commented that Mr Jay basically brought ten music videos into the theatre. The musical numbers are generally enjoyable but the other peripheral scenes fall flat. The medical hall scenes provide short-term comic relief but one questions how they contribute to the plot development effectively. Furthermore, some characters are not well-developed in the film. The medical hall boss, Bo Ye, performed by Eric Tsang does not have an important role in the film. His son, Beancurd (豆花), has an even more redundant role. The bowling arcade boss (爬爬趙) is not that funny and can be annoying at times. The villains are unmemorable as well. The ‘Big Red’ gangster is quite a good actor. However, his character is one-dimensional and his motivations are not fully explained. He just appears as this bad guy who degenerates to an insane Joker-like character in the last few scenes (at least the Joker has a backstory). The other villain, William, performed by Mr Jay’s good friend, Darren, is even more unbelievable. Darren’s amateurish acting makes one cringe embarrassingly. While his limited acting skills are still acceptable in Mr Jay’s music videos, his incompetency is magnified on the big screen. Mr Jay is well-known to be a good friend who strives to create opportunities for his less popular friends by giving them ‘jobs’ in his music videos, concerts and films. However, sometimes Mr Jay may have to face the reality and acknowledge that he cannot be ‘Jesus’ and saves his less competent peers by collaborating with them all the time.
Mr Jay emphasizes that his musical is different from other Western musicals as the musical sequences seamlessly blend into the film with logical transitions. For instance, in the ‘bathroom’ scene, after the enemies challenge him, “Do you want to die early?” (找死啊你) Mr Jay says coolly, “Before I die early, let me sing a song” (找死之前 让我唱一首歌). After this rather lame piece of dialogue, he launches into the fighting/dancing sequence (打架舞). The dialogue provides comic relief and acts as a transition to a musical segment. Throughout the film, Mr Jay attempts to create sensible transitions from normal dialogues to musical performance. While Mr Jay’s effort is recognized, the transitions are not as smooth as he wishes them to be.
One of the saving graces in the film is Mr Jay’s gang from the ‘Rooftop’. The camaraderie amongst Mr Jay and his three brothers is clearly developed the film. Black wheel, acted by Alan Kuo (柯有倫), is surprisingly pleasant to watch. The usual joker, Huang Jun Lang (黃俊郎) in this bombastic-broccoli-hair and ‘Woodstock/Hippie’ costumes, is genuinely funny. The ‘egg flower’ character (蛋花) does not have much impact as compared to the other brothers. The close friendship of these ‘Rooftop’ brothers may not be as moving as the brotherhood portrayed in ‘Monga’ but at least the audience is entertained when the boys have fun together. Other veteran performers like Lei Ge (雷哥), Kenny Bee (钟镇涛) and Xu Fan (徐帆) acted well but they had limited screen time.
‘Rooftop’ promotes itself as a romantic love story. But ironically, the romance between Mr Jay and his lady is the weakest link in the film. The most visible flaw in this film is Mr Jay’s lady, the newbie Li Xina. She is so bad that she makes Lin Chiling looks good! When she opens her mouth, I just want to shut my ears. Her voice is too high pitch and sickening sweet (甜得腻人). My friends suspected that her voice is dubbed as she speaks so unnaturally. After watching the film, I read some film reviews and realized that her voice is indeed dubbed by Lin Guan Lin (季冠霖) who is apparently quite a well-known ‘dubbing’ actress. I do not understand why they cannot select a more pleasant ‘dubbing’ voice. I think the fault lies with the producer, Will Liu (刘耕宏). He was the one who discovered Li whom he proudly introduced as the ‘Zebra-crossing Cinderella’ (斑马线上的灰姑娘). He said that he was blown away by her natural beauty and recruited her. Her acting skills are dismal. She is unable to act. Period. Unlike the talented actress Gwei Lun-Mei (桂纶镁) who is able to anchor ‘The Secret’ love story as a convincing female lead, Li is just like a fragile vase in the film. While Mr Jay’s acting skills have improved in this film, he needs a strong female lead to work with him and support the demands of the romantic scenes. Unfortunately, Li is useless and fails to do anything else in the film other than looking pretty while sitting on the gigantic gramophone and ‘contributing’ her white undies during the badly performed rape scene. Even her beauty loses its aura after awhile as her face on the old advertising billboard starts to remind me of the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg in ‘The Great Gatsby’.
In all memorable musicals with a heartbreaking love story, the duets between the male and female leads must be captivating. From the emotionally charged ‘One day more’ in ‘Les Misérables’ to ‘All I ask of you’ in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, most musicals feature a powerful rendition of songs where the lovers bare their souls and sing passionately. When Mr Jay and his lady are declaring their love for each other on the rooftop, one just wish that they can sing out their emotions like Christine and Satine when they belt out ‘Come what may’ in ‘Moulin Rouge’. I think even Mr Jay realizes the limitations of his lady and does not forcefully inject a duet into the romantic segments. So in the future, Mr Jay, please do not listen to your friend and find a better female lead.
The ending of the film is also unsatisfactory. In most romantic films, the predictable plot evolves around how the hero must save the day. Mr Jay has to struggle between saving his friends or his lady when Big Red threatens to kill them. During this tense moment, Mr Jay’s limited acting skills are exposed as his facial expressions just register pure ‘shock’ and he is unable to depict immense anguish and dilemma which plague the character. Towards the end, during the ‘Initial D’ car chasing scenes, Mr Jay sacrifices his life so that he can save his beloved. The collision between cars is so impactful that Mr Jay heroically flies out of his car. At this point, the rational thing to assume is that Mr Jay is dead. Then, suddenly, in the final scene, when Li Xina cries while looking at the old photograph of Lang Zi Gao, an old man appears miraculously in a wheel chair. The two elderly stare passionately at each other as they embrace. Seriously? If Lang Zi Gao is alive during all these years, why can’t he contact his lady? Is Mr Jay implying that he flies to planet Jupiter during the collision and takes so many years to return to Earth? What an irrational and disappointing ending! Mr Jay should make up his indecisive mind and create either a happy or tragic ending.
Overall, despite the flaws, the film has its merits. Even though it embodies Mr Jay’s boundless narcissism and over-reaching ambitions, it has courageously tried to break the usual conventions associated with Western musicals and expanded the range of Chinese films in Taiwanese cinema. The kongfu-musical style is very refreshing and sets itself apart from the well-received Chinese musical ’Perhaps Love’ (如果·爱). Much to Mr Jay’s delight, it was selected to be to be the closing film for New York Asian Film Festival. The famous director Zhang Yimou heaped praises on the ‘Rooftop’. He said in an interview, “Jay is slowly choking us up in the business. We’re going to lose our rice bowl… and it’s all you young directors”. Even our dear Ashin supported the film: 这是一个不容许乌托邦存在的世界，但他依然奋力从墙缝中开出最瑰丽的花朵, 有梦想的人, 值得我们的支持, 天台. ‘Rooftop’ may win some awards in the technical categories. Well, Mr Jay, 哎哟, 不错噢 – 不过还是把你的音乐做好吧…