Johnnie To never ceases to impress and Office is no exception. But it also surprises. His newest film is a musical based off a stage show by Sylvia Chang, who also writes and stars. With a pared down set reminiscent of Our Town, full of parallel lines and linear frames representing financial offices, bars, hospitals, and apartments, Office is visually stunning. But it’s not just the visual dynamism that makes the film so refreshing. To takes a story set in the financial world of the 2008 market crash and injects it with genuine humanism. By doing so, To makes Office not just a formal exercise, but a genuine delight.
The film follows the goings-on of the fictional Jones & Sunn firm preparing for its IPO in Hong Kong in 2008. Our gateway into this financial world are two interns, the earnest upstart Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and the mysterious Kat (Lang Yueting), who start their probationary period under the mentorship of the C.E.O. Chang (Sylvia Chang). The entire organization is overlooked by Chairman Ho (Chow Yun Fat), Chang’s lover and business partner. But as Chang and Ho drift apart and the firm undergoes rigorous auditing in order to prepare for its public offering, a series of backroom dealings and underhanded betrayals are revealed, threatening to destroy the status quo of Jones & Sunn and the people within it.
Office deals with the same thematic area as To’s own Life Without Principle, detailing the corruption of the financial sector and subtly exploring the negative influences of mainland Chinese capitalism on Hong Kong. But it has more in common with his romcoms Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 1 & 2 than with that hyperlink thriller, as Office uses the financial sector primarily to explore the ambitions and relationships of the people working within it. While never as openly farcical as the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart films, Office does play broadly humorous, even when the narrative takes a few dark turns. It’s a film with some heavy subject matter, but it’s never weighed down by those preoccupations. Instead, like any good musical, it’s light and always a pleasure to watch.
Office’s primary pleasure is its filmmaking, which is stunning. To’s brisk camera moves and exact framing are exhilarating and appear effortless. The film’s many musical sequences see the camera swooping and craning, highlighting William Chang’s dazzling set and supplying the film with a furious momentum. The characters rarely dance, instead allowing the camera movements to supply the film’s visual energy—it’s as if the camera is dancing in their stead. As for the music, no one song may stick out in the viewer’s mind after the viewing, but this is likely due to my own Western unfamiliarity with the Chinese pop of composer Lo Dayu. However, even if the music is not the film’s highlight, the musical sequences themselves dazzle in the moment. You can sense To’s joy in the film. If his film Sparrow could been seen as a musical without the music, Office is To finally capitalizing on his musical potential.
Johnnie To is a master of filmmaking who by now would be excused to rest on his laurels and direct the occasional Triad action flick, never wandering from the genre that made him famous. But instead, he continues to explore and find new ways to forward our cinematic vocabulary. Office is his latest formal innovation. It succeeds as both a deeply pleasing musical and an exhilarating way of staging a film. I’ve never seen anything like it before.
9 out of 10
Office (2015, Hong Kong/China)
Directed by Johnnie To; written by Sylvia Chang based on her stage play, Design for Living; starring Sylvia Chang, Wang Ziyi, Lang Yeuting, Eason Chan, and Chow Yun Fat.