Review: Johnnie To's OFFICE, Too Much Like Real Work
In a wild change of pace, Hong Kong director Johnnie To delivers an all-singing, occasionally-dancing adaptation of Sylvia Chang's successful stage play, Design for Living.
While the script has undergone numerous changes along the way, and boasts brand new musical numbers from Dayo Lu and Lin Xi, Office still charts the in-house dealings of billion-dollar company Jones & Sunn as they prepare to go public on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. To covered similar territory previously - and better - in 2011's Life Without Principle, but his film does display a keen understanding of Hong Kong's workplace environment and rituals.
Embracing the material's theatrical roots, To mounts a lavish production, filmed on a single evolving set, in which portions of Jones & Sunn become everything from apartments and nightclubs to late-night convenience stores. To employs the same minimalist technique as Lars von Trier did in Dogville and Miike Takashi in Big Bang Love, Juvenile A. However, such frugal amenities cannot contain such a visually driven filmmaker, and To frequently cheats, using devices such as green screen rear projection. As a result, Office becomes To's interpretation of Bertolt Brecht by way of Baz Luhrmann.
While the decision to shoot in 3D never quite pays off, some of the film's best moments come when the staging captures the imagination, recreating a typhoon or roof-top cigarette break, for example, with little more than faint background noise and a wind machine. Elsewhere, Office feels strangely dated, far older in fact than its 2008 setting.
Where Office does succeed is in replicating the everyday circus of Hong Kong's working environment. Chang's script knows the behavioural patterns of the Hong Kong workplace intimately, but where Pang Ho Cheung explored this deeper in Love In a Puff, Office is already too cluttered to spare time for deeper development.
Office is also guilty of under-representing Hong Kong's ethnic diversity - a common failing of the local film industry. There is not a single non-Chinese employee in this large prestigious company, situated in the heart of Asia's most ethnically diverse commercial centre. There are non-Asian characters in the film, but all are either overseas clients or tourists. It's a common complaint that stings particularly harshly when portraying a work environment so instantly - and intimately - recognisable.
Among this raft of snappily dressed, ambitious go-getters, there are precious few characters in Office worthy of our sympathy. Our supposed entry points, new hires Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yueting), have little going for them. Lee is the classic small-town brown-noser, setting out to climb the corporate ladder to the very top, while Kat is actually the filthy rich daughter of company Chairman Ho (Chow Yun Fat), working an entry level job incognito for reasons that are not immediately clear.
Eason Chan's wily executive David emerges as the film's most fully rounded character, but is also arguably the villain of the piece - a VP who has been speculating on the stock market with company funds. Sylvia Chang takes the film's other multi-layered role for herself, that of the formidable Winnie Chang, CEO and long-term mistress of the Chairman. Tang Wei, an increasingly ubiquitous presence in Hong Kong cinema, can always be relied upon to deliver a quality performance even when the material is lacking, which proves the case here too, with the woefully underwritten Sophie. Always the last to leave the office, she has chosen her career over her marriage, and is paying the price for it. When she stumbles across David's misdoings, a whole new level of workplace stress presents itself.
Office marks the first time that Hong Kong screen legend Chow Yun Fat has worked with Johnnie To in more than 25 years, but his Chairman Ho is more of a "Special Appearance" than a leading role. Ho is a flawed individual, present at the bedside of his comatose wife, while engaging in a long-term affair known to practically everyone. Wisely perhaps, Chow leaves most of the singing to Eason Chan and Wang Ziyi, while the other office staff chime in as the chorus, providing opinion and exposition about the proceedings between the principles. As for the quality of the musical numbers themselves, Dayo Lu and Lin Xi have proven track records that go back decades, but none of the tunes seemed to stick in the mind for more than a few seconds.
Sadly, Johnnie To just can't find the appropriate rhythm or tone to make Office a worthwhile or winning endeavour. Way out of his comfort zone, he seems reluctant to experiment with the film's setting and form, while the script offers little more than a procession of archetypes representing different attitudes towards work, power, money and success. Call it a missed opportunity, a failed experiment, or a complete lack of vision and clear intent, it is clear that To needs to stay after hours and put in some serious overtime, because right now Office fails to exploit its potential.