Hong Kong noir master Johnnie To's first-ever full-fledged musical, revolving around power struggles in a big corporation, will bow at Toronto and then London.
Having delivered screwball a year ago with Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2, Johnnie To has now thrown a curveball with his first-ever musical. Shot entirely on a $6.3 million, three-story set, Office — which opened in more than competent 3D in China on Sept. 2 — is lavishly decorated, technically accomplished, a perfect showcase of the Hong Kong noir master's versatility and a logical next step for his knack of portraying people as merely players in a chiaroscuro-lit stage. But Office is undermined by a simplistic screenplay lacking the nuances and frisson one expects of a cutting-edge satire of a capitalist world propelled by graft and greed.
Cross-breeding the 2011 thriller Life Without Principle, the slapstick routines of his 2013 comedy-thriller Blind Detective and the manic relationship drama in Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2, Office is a slick but sprawling mashup of all these concerns. What's lacking, however, is the genuine social fury or zany energy that kept all these previous films afloat. In fact, weighing down the austerely titled Office is an ordinariness that runs against its Chinese title, which translates as "Glamorous Office Workers."
Short of standout musical numbers and outlandish choreography, any sustained international interest in this film beyond its fall festival stops in Toronto, Busan and London will be less a result of its pioneering merits and more on account of the pedigrees of To and co-producer/writer/star Sylvia Chang (whose latest directorial effort, Murmur of the Hearts, is also screening in Toronto alongside the Jia Zhangke drama Mountains May Depart, in which she stars).
Adapting her own hit play Design for Living, Chang reprises her stage role as Winnie, a high-flying CEO trying to steer her company — or, to be exact, the one owned by her mentor-turned-lover Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-Fat) — toward a lucrative IPO. In this endeavor, Winnie counts on a team led by two of her trusted lieutenants: David (Eason Chan, Dream Home), a brash go-getter with a canny eye for the tools and people he can use to get ahead; and the mainland-born financial controller Sophie (Tang Wei, The Golden Era), her sanity deteriorating as her long-distance relationship with her fiance hits the rocks. Several rungs below are new trainees Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi, Chongqing Blues), a young man trying to live up to his name, which is homonymous with "ideal" in Chinese, and Kat (Long Yueting), the secret scion who views Winnie from afar with a mixture of grudging reverence (for her abilities) and loathing (for her part in the break-up of her family).
In a move signaling either selflessness or self-protection, Chang has somehow reduced the centrality of her own role in her adaptation. Her Design for Living character seduces nearly all the men, and exploits all the women. Whereas Winnie's stalled relationship with Chung-ping and complex trysts with David remain, the manipulative relationships with her other underlings are nearly written out of the picture. Without her presence as a central pivot, Office becomes an unfocused and uneven blend of multiple subplots, with hardly enough screen time dedicated to the development of all these intricate relationships between all these nuanced characters.
Still, Office could be seen as To's riposte to his own previous film. While Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 celebrates high-finance careerists and their commodity fetishes — complete with young parvenus enjoying their swank cars and swish condos — William Chang's minimalist production design strips such material excess in its attempt to depict the individual as an alienated cog in the machine — literally, that is: In what is probably the film's most outlandish gesture, and a nod to the film's stage origins, Chang's production design removes the walls from offices, lifts and subway cars, producing a network of transparent cells divided by plastic slabs, metal bars and florescent tubes.
Adding to this, To has certainly brought along some of his trademark visual flourishes, among the most memorable being the swooping tracking shot taking in toiling laborers, tai-chi-practicing pensioners and sweating street-food hawkers — a rare earthbound counterpoint to the bourgeois power battles unfolding in dizzy heights well above ground.
Still, Office hardly matches the powerful stylistic innovation and social allegory To has delivered through, say, his cops-and-gangsters fare in The Mission, PTU or Election. Then again, Office looks more like To's effort in realizing Chang's vision rather than his attempt to impose his own. Credit is certainly due for the director in lending his diligence and technical expertise to what will prove to be a very costly and challenging high-concept piece, but Office looks very much like the director, well, wrapping up yet another day at the office.