Hitting the roof?

Taiwanese pop star makes a Bollywood-like musical. Will it be a hit in China?

Li Xiyi w

Newcomer actress Li Xinai stars with Jay Chou in The Rooftop

He is Asia’s undisputed king of pop. Since his first release Jay in 2000, all of Jay Chou’s albums have topped the charts. The 34 year-old Taiwanese singer has featured in Hollywood films, as well as directed music videos. And now he’s risking his star power on a new project in which he both acts and directs. Chou has just released The Rooftop, which he describes as “a feel-good, musical action movie”.

Why is it risky? Mostly because musicals are relatively unfamiliar terrain to Chinese audiences. The last time a local language musical reached the big screen was in 2010 when Disney released the Chinese version of High School Musical, which flopped miserably. In fact, the only screen musical that might be regarded as a mild success was released back in 2005. Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s Perhaps Love got glowing reviews but took only Rmb50 million ($8.15 million) at the Chinese box office. Nor does it bode well for the genre that Les Misérables, an Oscar nominee, made just Rmb48.2 million in ticket sales when it was screened earlier this year.

Chou is hoping for a more successful run for his own film for which he also wrote the screenplay. Clearly he is hoping that his own star appeal, as well as a better understanding of local audiences might make it more likely.

“A Chinese musical like The Rooftop might even be able to surpass Hollywood musical films, which seldom emerge as huge commercial hits,” Chou told the Wall Street Journal confidently. “It can also be a good introduction to Asian culture for Western audiences,” he added, noting that the movie was chosen as the closing film at the New York Asian Film Festival two weeks ago.

Set in the fictional city of Galilee, the film centres on Wax (played by Chou) and his friends, a bunch of underdogs who spend their days riding around town and getting into trouble. They help out at Dr Bo’s Chinese medicine shop, where they also learn a few kung-fu moves. But Wax soon finds himself in trouble with the triads after falling in love with the star of a shampoo advertisement, an aspiring actress who is working to pay off debt that her father owes the gangsters. If it sounds cheesy, it probably is. But Chou thinks there’s something for everyone in the film, including non-musical fans.

There are plenty of martial arts scenes, for instance, and even a car chase (to show off vintage automobiles Chou specifically hired for the production). Of course, there’s also newcomer Li Xinai playing Chou’s shampoo love interest.

The critics don’t sound as confident about the film as Chou is himself. Instead there’s criticism of what seems like a scattergun approach to win over audiences. “In The Rooftop, it’s clear that whatever Chou wants, he films. Even if the scene has no technical or artistic relevance, he still goes at it with a gusto,” scoffed China Entertainment Net. “The creative intent is very clear: the singer-director clearly understands his strengths and what his fans are obsessed with, so he offers those in spades. However, the narrative is weak and there is virtually no character development throughout the film.”

Others called the film Chou’s “vanity project” with the Taipei Times particularly scathing: “The Rooftop is essentially all about Jay Chou, the Mando-pop king… The rest of the movie is Chou’s fantasy come true: he is the martial arts hero who beats up bad guys and saves the beauty. Unfortunately, neither the star nor his fantasy is particularly interesting.”

The Rooftop has already done better financially than its critics might believe it merits. Thanks in large part to Chou’s pulling power, about Rmb100 million in tickets have been sold since last Thursday, says Tencent Entertainment. That places it fifth in the box office, though well behind a slew of Hollywood imports like Will Smith’s After Earth and Disney’s Monsters University.

The film’s producer, meanwhile, is already attempting to strike a more celebratory tone, saying that The Rooftop has broken the box office record for a musical in China.

WiC feels an over-exuberant song coming on in celebration…

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