There was a time when every pub and restaurant in Brno seemed to be competing for the title of the city’s best burger. Everyone I knew had an opinion on whose was top, and my own pick wasn’t too popular with pub-owner friends who prided themselves on their homemade patties.
A new craze put paid to all that nonsense, and we partially have the country’s burgeoning Vietnamese community to thank for that – suddenly everyone was head-over-heels for Bún bò Nam Bô and Bánh mì sandwiches.
Vietnamese immigrants began settling in Czechoslovakia during the Communist era, arriving as guest workers invited by the government. Nowadays Vietnamese people make up the Czech Republic’s third-largest ethnic minority, after Slovaks and Ukrainians.
The first Czech film I’ve seen so far that touches upon the Vietnamese-Czech experience is Jiří Mádl’s On the Roof, a touching comedy that focuses on the growing friendship between a lonely old man and a desperate young immigrant.
Alois Švehlík plays Antonín Rypar, a cantankerous retired professor living alone in his top floor apartment in Prague. He doesn’t have much time for people, and people aren’t too keen on him either – especially when they find out he was a communist during the soviet era. His wife left him a long time ago, taking their son with her, and he hasn’t heard from them in years – he’s isolated and regretful.
One day he pops up to the roof for a smoke and finds a distraught young Vietnamese guy, Song (Duy Anh Tran) getting ready to jump. Song has escaped from the marijuana farm where he was forced to work before it was raided by the police. Now homeless and on the run, Song is about to end it all.
Antonín talks Song down and gives the hungry and frightened young man some food while treating him to his bigoted ideas. The old man is angry at the state of the world and thinks the answer to the country’s problems is to close the borders and prevent illegal immigrants from getting in, a view that will strike a topical nerve with audience members on both sides of the argument.
Despite this, Antonín begrudgingly enjoys Song’s company and offers him his spare room, in exchange for some free cleaning. He strikes upon the idea of finding Song a Czech bride so he can stay in the country legally, and the pair secretively turn their attention to the attractive young woman living across the hall…
On the Roof takes a bunch of modern social issues and lightly squeezes them into the shape of an odd-couple movie, which hits all the comedic and dramatic beats you’d expect. The pair are distrustful at first but soon start to benefit from each other – Antonín helps Song learn Czech, while Song teaches the old man how to use Facebook to woo their pretty neighbour. You see, friendship isn’t bound by age, race or language…
Then, just when I was about to write off On the Roof as an entertaining but formulaic movie, it pulled out a genuinely surprising and touching plot turn in the final act that left me grinning. I won’t give it away but if I was the type of reviewer to give star ratings, that one thing would be enough to upgrade this from a three-star movie to a four-star one.
On the Roof was originally intended as a vehicle for Jan Tříska (The Elementary School), who sadly died just before shooting began. Alois Svehlík stepped into the role of Antonín and he’s terrific. Irritable and defiant, Antonín is a man who knows his time is coming slowly to an end and isn’t happy about it all. While he’s a redoubtable character, his loneliness makes him strangely vulnerable and regret haunts his eyes. Svehlík plays him sternly without ever trying to make him seem like a loveable old gent.
Duy Anh Tran makes an interesting foil for Svehlík’s crotchety old-timer, giving an emotional, unguarded performance as Song. He’s scared and alone until his friendship with Antonín encourages him to slowly come out of his shell.
The pair work off each other well and they manage to sell the film’s unlikelier elements, especially during the scenes when they’re trying to flirt with the neighbour without letting her know who’s doing the flirting. Together, the two actors make their character’s budding bromance worth rooting for – they are so good that I just wish they were in a better movie.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about On The Roof. In fact, it’s a perfectly enjoyable evening’s entertainment. It’s a decent watch, just be prepared to feel a little undernourished afterwards.
On the Roof is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing.
Lee is a writer and film critic living in Brno. He studied film at uni, but dropped out halfway through because his tutor was always skiving off. He spent the next two decades using his half-education to passionately consume and write about movies. He has written for several outlets across the web, including the late-lamented Way Too Indie. In 2018 he founded Czech Film Review, approaching the cinema of his adopted home country from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider.