Music prodigy Chou shines as director

BEIJING - Few entertainers or artists get to dominate a whole decade.

But for those who do, the second act of their career is decidedly mixed.

Singer-actor Jay Chou has been a marginal player in Chinese-language cinema. Even though his 2007 directorial debut - Taiwanese romance movie Secret - was a smash success, he was still seen as riding on the coat-tails of his all-engulfing music accomplishments because the film was built around extended passages of music.

The Rooftop, his follow-up movie, is not meant to shake off his image as a music prodigy. In fact, it was conceived as a musical, with Chou composing more than two dozen tunes for it.

But it is not a conventional musical. Even the lead pair of lovebirds do not get to warble a big duet.

"I use the song-and-dance numbers as a kind of music accompaniment," said Chou in an exclusive interview with China Daily.

"Ideally, a musical director should be able to translate the imagery in his head into music. But most would hire professional musicians for that. I am trained in music and have an interest in movie directing, so the creation process is more direct for me and the two skills complement each other."

Not only did he compose all the original music, but he also conceived the staging for many of the tunes. It is not surprising as he directed most of his own music videos and many of them portray exotic or historical scenes in movie- like vicissitudes. As a result, some of the numbers in The Rooftop turned out to have a Broadway quality.

However, only the love story gets the musical treatment, while the film's martial-arts part is conspicuously devoid of singing or dancing.

Chou said: "I cannot imagine villains singing their lines. It would be weird, wouldn't it?"

The Rooftop is set in the 1970s, partly for the purpose of bridging a generation gap.

The 34-year-old Chou, who is never shy about admitting his closeness to his mother - a single parent - wants his mother's generation to love this movie as much as he wants the younger generation to embrace it.

It also gave him an opportunity to create a highly stylised world in which the rooftop represents a poor man's paradise.

Although his character, the leading man, ends up getting the girl, the rival for her attentions is someone who is not only wealthy, but also possesses better looks. He turns out to be a competitor in a piano play-off against Chou's character.

Chou said he identifies with the social underdog because he used to be a struggling artist who had to sleep in a recording studio when riding his motorcycle home became too exhausting.

"Even now, I don't have many friends from wealthy backgrounds," he said.

Artistically, he has been praised for his taste. His music background has given him an eye for fluid storytelling. Although the story of Secret, which he co-wrote, may not be as strong or original as those of other films, Chou's directing is assured, with many strokes of genius.

In a rare candid post on its microblog account, the China Film Directors Association said: "(Chou) may not be a good actor, but he is absolutely a good film director!"

That means that we can expect greater things from the boy next door who plays a dozen musical instruments and, sometimes, mumbles sentences that are unintelligible to most people.

In a way, The Rooftop feels like a midway stop in Chou's career as he explores the uncharted waters of narrative art.

It is a unique challenge in genre choice as a musical is extremely difficult to pull off and, without creating much hoopla, it has climbed over the 100 million yuan (S$20 million) mark in box-office returns in China, a first for a musical film.