Office (Hua li shang ban zu)

China/Hong Kong (2015) Dir. Johnnie To

Not to be confused with the classic BBC comedy series or the Korean thriller of the same name, this Office sees the King of Hong Kong crime thriller Johnnie To try his hand at musical comedy drama. It’s based on the stage play Design for Living written by actress Sylvia Chang who wrote and produced this adaptation as well as stars in it.

Set in 2008, just prior to the global financial crash, the CEO of the billion dollar company Jones & Sunn, Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang) welcomes two new recruits to her firm – ambitious but noble Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and the quietly demure but vastly over qualified Kat (Lang Yueting) – just as the Chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat) announces he is taking the company public.

Meanwhile vice CEO David Wang (Eason Chan) has been using the company’s money to play the stock market whilst heading the company’s negotiations with an American cosmetics company, MADAME. David cosies up alongside workaholic financial controller Sophie (Tang Wei), knowing she is in love with him despite being locked in a fruitless engagement, to help cover his tracks.

The corporate business world has the reputation it does for being cut throat and shallow for good reason, and while Office merely skims the surface of the sort of venal activities that occur and the ruthless dog eat dog mantra that drives personal politics, it keeps its scope of satire as superficial as the film’s presentation.

Released in China where the 3D market is still very popular, the ever-present neon signs, multi-storey, futuristic looking, open plan labyrinthine edifice that is the titular office and the swooping camerawork all favour this format, yet loses nothing of its visual majesty when viewed in 2D. Boasting a vibrant and vivid colour palette to offset the uniformed blandness of the regulatory suit and tie outfit, there are plenty of treats for the eye here.

But, much of this comes at the expense of the story, which we can only assume was not compromised to the same extent on stage. In between the shady, and legitimate, business dealings, which take a while to reveal themselves, time is spent exploring the personal relationships of the cast, with mixed success.

Chairman Ho has been having an affair with Winnie Chang for twenty years, which has left Ho’s wife in a coma, although they spend very little screen time together. This plays into Kat’s secret, given away by unsubtle clues early on – being allowed to ride the executive lift, being chauffeur driven to work, wearing designer outfits and being fluent in English, all the while claiming a humble working class background.

Lee Xiang suffers from the love at first sight syndrome, starting work on the same day as Kat but not receiving the same courtesy as her, especially from David who is irked by the fact Winnie likes his moxie. While we are spared the inevitable young love outcome between these two, it certainly puts a dampener on any frisson created, ultimately leaving their characters with unresolved romantic directions.

Of all the office romances the only one given time to play out to its logical conclusion is the saga of Sophie and David, although it’s not an ending some people would like to see. It does provides some comedy though – in one scene the office workers info-dump Sophie’s situation through song, speculating on her secret love only for Lee Xiang to blurt out the truth, for which he is berated!

As I understand, the original stage play featured Winnie Chang more prominently, thus sharing the film’s spotlight with the other characters has resulted in some hastily rewritten parts, hence the haphazard juggling of subplots. Many of the characters do feel rather stereotyped, such as vacuous clotheshorse Ka-Ling (Tien Hsin), and her sharp as a tack assistant Ban-ban (Stephanie Che). Then again I suppose every office has one.

While it is clear there is a satire of sort at play here, it is unclear exactly what is being satirised. The armies of similarly dressed workers either lined up or marching in unison to their posts suggests a dig at the stifling conformity of communism; yet the entire embezzlement subplot with David and the way lives are manipulated and affected by the stock market also seems like a swipe at corporate greed.

Perhaps Chang was hoping to show the pressures of working in such a risky, high flying environment takes its toll on everyone from the top to the bottom. While Winnie may have the money and the power, she only has the man by proxy; elsewhere during a musical number, one man sings about how he is working hard for a child who never sees his daddy.

Ah yes, the musical numbers. There are only a few but are congruent to the plot, providing exposition, lampooning the company ethics or allowing characters to express their feelings. Often jaunty and mostly ensemble affairs, songwriters Lo Tayu and Keith Chan Fai-young have an ear for a catchy melody even if the lyrics don’t scan so well in English. Dance routines are eschewed here aside from minor relative choreography.

Johnnie To has quite the line-up of big names for this film and whatever the joke is, they all seem to be in on it. Chow Yun-Fat does very little except look suave, while Sylvia Chang reduces her role from the stage play but still proves a commanding presence. It is Tang Wei who shines the most, her dramatic prowess hidden behind her glasses and officious demeanour until fate unleashes her true power in the final act.

Office is a curious film in that it isn’t bad or does anything explicitly wrong, and is a superb example of well-constructed cinema on a visual front, but the story isn’t strong or coherent enough to warrant such lavish production values. It’s fun and engaging but not memorable enough.

Stick to Triad shootouts Johnnie!


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