The genre-hopping Hong Kong master Johnnie To takes his first step into the world of musicals in a predictably idiosyncratic fashion with Office, less a jaunty financial thriller than an ensemble drama about the power dynamics in both romantic and professional relationships. The literal English translation for the film’s Mandarin title (華麗上班族) is “Gorgeous White-Collar Workers”, which not only clarifies the film’s primary focus but also acts a clear shift away from the stageplay on which the film is based, star Sylvia Chang’s own Design for Living.1 Don’t mistake the film for just frivolity, though; whilst it might be an often gleeful experience, To’s film holds no illusions about corporate life, grappling with both work-related depression and the disparity between how men and women are treated in the workplace, which especially rears its head as the film moves towards its finale.
Jones & Sunn, a multinational company preparing for its IPO around the same time as Lehmann Brothers collapses in 2008, serves as the backdrop for (initially) segmented character relationships: Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Long Yueting) are the company’s new recruits, assistants on a three-month probation period; David (Eason Chan) and Sophie (Tang Wei) are old hands at the job, he the company’s second-in-command and she a trusted accountant; and the company’s CEO, Winnie Chang (a wonderfully restrained Sylvia Chang), is in a romantic entanglement with her former boss and now company chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-Fat). Where everything becomes a lot more complex and captivating is in the mesh of these relationships: Kat is revealed to be the chairman’s daughter, specifically installed in the company in a nefarious act of nepotism; the high-spirited Lee Xiang shadows David and starts to resemble him; Winnie and David also seem to have a romantic past. This ratcheting melodrama is swiftly undercut by reality, in a structural mirroring of the financial crisis abroad.
Whilst it’s a star-studded affair, the real star of Office is the stunning and expansive set design. Built specifically for the film as a three-floor multi-purpose office in a giant warehouse space, it was designed by regular Wong Kar-Wai collaborator William Chang and features a huge rotating clockface as its centrepiece.2 The comparisons to the lavish sets of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man are warranted – though I’d argue the shots of the expansive array of office desks owe more to The Apartment – yet Office distinguishes itself in its production design by pushing back against the segmented approach taken by those films. Here the set is ever-changing, with minimal walls and dividers, rooms spill over into one another, interior and exterior meld in ways both obvious and subtle, shot in a sleek manner by cinematographers Cheng Siu-Keung and To Hung-Mo. It’s all anchored by a running awareness of the story’s theatrical origins, the self-contained world (save for some amusing and sparingly employed green screen work) calls to mind the stage aesthetic of von Trier’s Dogville, with the combination of theatre and the bright neon colours reminiscent of certain sequences in Richard Ayoade’s recent The Double.
Musically, the film is fairly hokey; produced through a collaboration between musician Law Tai-Yau and Cantopop composer Keith Chan Fai-Young, each song number sounds it harbors a melody lifted from a myriad number of pop hit, accompanied by some thoroughly deadpan lyrics. This sounds like a fault, but it’s not – the juxtaposition of recycled music and clinical phrasing is a consistent delight, and the translation probably helps; the dense references to financial predicaments and workplace life actively refuse the conventions of a neat and chirpy Westernised musical. On that, To often has his characters jump into less than thirty seconds of song apropos of nothing, making Office a veiled homage to Jacques Demy’s entirely sung The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, particularly in how the act of singing takes far greater precedence to any choreographed movement.3
The script meanders quite a bit, lacking the tight focus of some of To’s thrillers, yet this looseness is very much welcome: weaker scenes are often used as an excuse to explore the wondrous set, and each of the many subplots are compelling in their own right. In terms of its approach to romance, Office feels at home alongside To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, though the merger of business and love takes a more cynical turn in his latest film. Each of the romantic pairings rise above the often broad dialogue through convincing performances across the board – even Chow Yun-Fat’s mostly sidelined presence carries with it an exacting sense of distance.
Though not a traditional musical, melodrama or look at the world of finance, Johnnie To’s melting pot of a movie is one of the most rewarding films of the year – providing a window into a paradoxically intricate yet hollowed out world and demanding repeat viewings, if only to map out the floorspace.
Note: Office is also screening in 3D in selected sessions, which is the format it screened in at the Toronto International Film Festival last week.
Around the Staff: