Film review: Johnnie To's stylised musical Office dissects the financial world
'Heroically different' 3D musical is elevated by stunning sets and multilayered storyline
Johnnie To Kei-fung’s consummate flair as a visual stylist is on full display in Office, a 3D musical adapted for the screen by actress-scriptwriter Sylvia Chang Ai-chia from her first written play, Design for Living. While the three-hour-plus stage version from 2008 directed by theatre maverick Edward Lam Yik-wah whimsically contemplates the loss of personal ideals among white-collars, To’s take seems merely to entertain.
Set in the wake of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Office revolves around a Chinese financial company about to be listed on the stock exchange – and may come across as an inadvertently opportune commentary on China’s economic uncertainties. But it soon transpires that Chang’s multilayered tale of greed and betrayal, featuring three pairs of protagonists in an unnamed Chinese city, is as universal as capitalism itself.
The kinetic film is represented on three levels in the corporate hierarchy. While company chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat), who has a comatose wife in hospital, pulls strings behind the back of his CEO and long-time lover Winnie Chang (Chang, reprising her stage role), the entry rank is epitomised by trainees Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yueting), respectively an idealistic dreamer and Ho’s incognito daughter.
In the film’s most engaging storyline, Cantopop singer Eason Chan Yik-shun – the only star musician on the cast – plays Winnie’s deputy David, an opportunist who must negotiate his illegal handling of company funds with financial secretary Sophie (Tang Wei), a careerist in a crumbling relationship. This being the global financial collapse, a downward spiral predictably awaits as David moves to exploit Sophie’s emotional vulnerability.
All this might suggest an ordinary workplace melodrama if To didn’t have the audaciousness to suggest that capitalism, unbeknownst to his characters, is one big illusion they’re involuntarily trapped in. The film takes place predominantly on a lavish, modernist set of translucent walls that stand in for everything from the offices and homes to the diners and subway trains. Even when its musical numbers falter, few could overlook the enthralling set designed by William Chang Suk-ping.
While this isn’t the first time To has flirted with the musical format – his pickpocket drama Sparrow (2008), operating without song-and-dance sequences, had the rhythmic poise of a Jacques Demy classic – Office doesn’t so much distinguish itself with its genre tropes than it seeks to experiment with the formal possibilities. If his film ultimately divides opinions, the Hong Kong auteur can at least take comfort in the fact he has pulled off something heroically different.
Office opens on September 24