Johnnie To’s Office is not a crime thriller. Actually, Office is not a romantic comedy either, so regardless of your genre preference, it’s accurate to call this musical-drama-satire To’s biggest departure in a long time. Besides the uncommon-for-him genre, Office finds To working without Wai Ka-Fai and instead with his All About Ah Long and The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon collaborators Sylvia Chang and Chow Yun-Fat. Also, the look of the film is something else. Eschewing realistic settings, Office employs elaborate sets composed of metal beams, colored plastic fixtures and fluorescent neon bulbs, with spaces separated by sliding screens, venetian blinds or sometimes nothing at all. This is a transparent set where the sky is the soundstage ceiling, and urinals and bathtubs are transparent wireframe objects, plus there are massive clock faces everywhere. The metaphor of time lording over office workers is easy to grasp – much easier, actually, than getting used to the postmodern production design. However, much like appreciating Office, it can be done. An open mind helps.
Office is based on the play Design for Living co-written by Sylvia Chang and Edward Lam (only Chang receives screen credit), with added songs by Lo Dayu (music) and Lam Jik (lyrics). Chang reprises her role from the stageplay; she’s Winnie Chang, CEO of trading firm Jones & Sunn International Ltd., which is about to launch an IPO and everyone is super-anxious about it. Meanwhile, the company receives two fresh recruits: wide-eyed Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and pretty Harvard grad Kat Ho (Lang Yueting). Both are thrown into the high pressure corporate environment, and the ambitious but sincere Lee Xiang is already impressing with his sharp memory and sharper eyes. Kat, however, has a secret: She’s actually the daughter of company chairman Ho Chung-Ping (Chow Yun-Fat), and is trying to learn about the business while keeping her identity secret from her colleagues. Winnie knows Kat’s identity because she’s been around the Ho family for decades, plus she’s Chung-Ping’s longtime mistress – a fact that naturally grates on Kat.
Ho Chung-Ping’s wife (Mimi Kung) is currently in a coma, which causes strife between Chung-Ping and Kat, and even tension for Winnie, who’s tired of being the other woman. Winnie also has a close relationship with the company’s vice-CEO, David Wong (Eason Chan), who’s been her protégé and perhaps a bit more since he started at the company. David is an arrogant prick but he has an admirer in Sophie (Tang Wei), the company’s financial controller and a regular bundle of harried OL (office lady) clichés. While David obsesses over risky stock speculation, Sophie muddles through a long-distance relationship with her fiancée in China. Meanwhile, 20 million dollars is missing from the company’s 2007 financials – a big sticking point since there’s an accounting firm currently auditing the books. As the players bustle around the office, the financial world is about to be rocked by the 2008 Lehmann Brothers bankruptcy, which will send stocks falling, relationships crashing and metaphorical temperatures rising to combustion. The office will survive but jobs and workers may not.
Office is tough to take in the early going, as it roams between characters and situations without establishing a clear driving narrative. Characters are briskly sketched, with some getting defining songs and others not. The story – a satire on office politics and human foibles – ultimately takes shape, but Johnnie To and Sylvia Chang don’t offer a definitive commentary. Rather, Office is a patchwork of ideas and issues, some local and some universal, having to do with money but not necessarily the things that we do to get it. This isn’t a film about the evils of big business, but about people who spend a lot of time at the office and what they may or may not do. Office is essentially an over-stuffed multi-episode TV drama truncated into two hours and given musical numbers. The amount of details and subplots means little time for development, but To and Chang handle their characters adroitly, introducing them as distinct types and letting the actors go to work.
Which they do, and splendidly. Performances are exaggerated but once the film hits its stride the actors do too. Eason Chan leads the pack as the rakish David, whose cocksure charm gradually morphs into a pathetic self-awareness. Tang Wei’s behavioral tics are too showy but her emotions stick to the gut, and her shared scenes with Eason Chan possess the power to touch and also unnerve. Neither is a character to fall in love with, but that’s OK. Sylvia Chang is not the central character she seemingly should be, but she shows class and an affecting mixture of sympathy and cunning. Given limited screen time, Chow Yun-Fat shows charisma and depth, with something always going on beneath his smart, knowing exterior. Supporting performances are fine; Milkyway players like Eddie Chueng, Stephanie Che and Lo Hoi-Pang mill about in small-to-midsize roles, while Tin Sum vamps entertainingly as resident office vixen Kar-Ling. Not all the supporting players become distinct characters, but they’re part of the chorus so it’s not really necessary.
In many ways, the film centers on Wang Ziyi and Lang Yueting. Now a veteran Milkyway Image player, Wang (Drug War, Blind Detective) brings sincerity and youth to Lee Xiang, and his exuberance can be endearing. Lang is the weakest link among the cast but she carries her part sufficiently. The two actors get a “young love” storyline amidst the office politics, and their idealism and innocence serve as necessary touchstones for audiences to identify with. While Lee Xiang gets a solid arc, Kat Ho’s story still lacks something as her many issues with identity and family aren’t fully addressed. However, there’s a terrific and very subtle payoff where the two acknowledge their role in the bittersweet drama at Jones & Sunn. Their four words, “We didn’t mean it,” are an honest and true response to the office upheaval, but also a ready-made excuse for forthcoming compromises and mistakes that may turn each into a David, a Sophie or a Winnie one day. That minor foreshadowing gives Office subtle and surprising resonance.
The musical sequences are somewhat of a letdown. Lo Dayu’s music and Lam Jik’s lyrics are fine, but both require Chan Fai-Yeung arrangements to soar. Some songs are clumsily inserted; Kar-Ling’s early number establishes her personality, but it’s introduced awkwardly and her minor character shouldn’t require a defining tune. Also, none of the songs are truly memorable, with few doing more than establish characters or relationships. Sound design is occasionally sub-par (in one song the sound levels distractingly fade in and out) and not all the actors (Hi, Eddie Cheung!) should be belting out tunes. All criticism is thrown out, however, when Eason Chan is singing. His duets with Tang Wei manage multiple emotions, and his climactic song “何必呢” (“What’s the point?”) taps into his full, evocative range. To its credit, Office is brave enough to go full musical, unlike Hong Kong’s last ballyhooed genre attempt, Perhaps Love, which insecurely used a musical-within-a-movie format. Still, its songs were better than those in Office – so that’s a draw, I suppose.
Office doesn’t fully meet its potential. The nifty sets, while unique and interesting, seem more a practical choice (Hong Kong is not going to clear streets to help Johnnie To make a musical) than an artistic one. Other technical work is unimpressive; cinematography and editing are below-average for a Milkyway Image film, and choreography feels perfunctory. Office lacks the precision of To’s best work while channeling some of the sloppiness of his early aughts populist films. His work with the actors is top-notch, however, and there are memorable moments and surprises arising from the acting and characterization. Nothing in Office is revolutionary, but Johnnie To and Sylvia Chang take familiar concepts and characters, rearrange them onscreen and make them sing – no pun intended. Despite its status as a musical-comedy, Office may actually be one of the year’s best dramas. Its willingness to attempt risky genre combinations, play with form and add a bunch of songs to a film that didn’t require them? A bonus.