It’s hard to tell who’s protagonist and who’s antagonist in director Johnnie To’s new film-cum-musical, Office. The characters sing and occasionally dance as they try to figure themselves out in the highly stylised setting of financial conglomerate Jones & Sunn’s office. To’s first musical number is adapted from fellow cast member Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Design for Living, and stays loyal to its theatre roots with a vast, open-plan set. Incorporating numbers from songwriter Lo Tayu and lyricist Lin Xi, Office portrays the honest but rather heartbreaking capitalist lifestyle of the common Hong Kong resident to the world.
The musical is a well-known genre in Hong Kong, but Office is the first such movie to gain prominence overseas. The cast, which is well known locally—Eason Chan and Tang Wei—are less known abroad—so what can it be?
The story kicks off a short while before the 2008 global financial crisis, following Lee Xiang’s (Wang Ziyi) point of view on his first day as a probationary hire at Jones & Sunn. As the innocent intern is slowly introduced to the complex surroundings of his workplace, the viewer too first look into the office: machines churning, cogs turning, workers bumping into each other as they rush to their posts—the whole atmosphere is frantic. This out-of-control ambience remains for the rest of the film.
Throughout Office’s two-hour playtime, the audience watches the inevitable tragedy unfold between three couples at different stages of their career path. Topmost is Chairman Ho Chung-ping’s (Chow Yun-fat) love affair with scheming Winnie Cheung (Sylvia Chang), while his wife is in a deep coma. Then we have David Wong (Eason Chan), who lets his greed for money take over his life and who somehow manages to schmooze his unhappy coworker, Sophie (Tang Wei). And just starting out at Jones & Sunn are Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yue-ting), who are initially innocently enthusiastic about the cooperate world… until they see the furtive power plays and manipulation between their coworkers, exposed layer by layer as the plot unfolds, bringing to light themes of betrayal, greed and 20th century capitalism—themes that contributed much to Office’s success at the box office by setting it apart from other Hong Kong films of its genre.
While other local musical-films tend to focus on story lines concerning spy agents and prisoners, To’s examination of office politics is much more relatable. Throughout the film, I found myself nodding at the all-too-familiar scenes and was left wondering: is this the path I’m also headed down?
Because Office was originally a stage play, its musical roots stems from a theatrical arts style. Elements of a traditional play are also directly incorporated into the film. Heavy sentiments are expressed through lyrics, offering insight into the characters’ minds and true emotions. Much of the spoken exchanges between the office workers are lies that are directly contrasted by the lyrics in the songs they sing. For example, in a melodic soliloquy, Kat sings about her true identity after lying to Lee Xiang about her family. “Do you believe I like myself only if I’m unlike myself?” she croons.
The biggest distinction between Office and other films of its type is the masterful use of setting, fashioned by production designer William Chang. The surrealist, exaggerated presentation is something that is typically only seen in a stage play, but Chang has modified it so that it’s not only well adapted to the big screen, but also so that it advances the plot. Office deservedly won Best Art Direction at the 35th Hong Kong Film Awards. But, ultimately, it’s the relatability of the subject matter that has made Office such a hit both locally and internationally.
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