Johnnie To switches gear and gives us this strange but fascinating look at Hong Kong office life
“Young man, what’s your name again?”
“Lee Seung. Lee for Ang Lee, Seung for dream.”
“Hope you’ll remember it.”
Hong Kong director Johnnie To has never been a stranger to mixing it up. He’s probably best known for his action gangster films and his beautifully-filmed gunfight sequences, but has also done a few rom-coms and dabbled in other genres. So it should come as no real surprise that he’d probably try his hand at a musical comedy-drama, but still it was. Office (the one I was actually looking for that one time I accidentally watched this instead) is the result of that and boy is it interesting.
It focuses on … well, it’s a bit hard to tell. At first the movie is about Lee Seung (Wang Ziyi), a young newbie starting at Jones and Sunn as it’s undergoing an audit just before going public. He works underneath David (Eason Chan), a sleazebag who only really looks out for himself. Lee meets Kat (Lang Yueting), another newcomer who is secretly the daughter of Chairman Ho (Chow Yun-Fat). She is trying to keep her identity secret and make her way in the business the honest way. A romance blooms between them.
The movie then shifts its focus between Winnie Cheung (Sylvia Chang), the CEO of the company and Ho’s mistress; David who drinks a lot and whose finances seem just a little on the shady side, and Sophie (Tang Wei), whose job I can’t remember well but is too easily manipulated by David. The stories interweave and some play out nicely while others kind of go nowhere. This is probably the film’s weakest aspect: its story.
The plot of the film jumps around too much and is full of clichéd characters and plots too easily shrugged off. Sylvia Chang – credited screenwriter – has a good number of characters to split the story with, but you definitely feel like there could be more to this. By bouncing from story to story, the audience is less immersed in this world. The stories themselves aren’t terrible; they’re a little predictable and straightforward but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that in order to stand out, Office needs more than just its characters and plot hooks to keep us interested. Thankfully, the man behind the camera is Johnnie To.
With dozens of directing credits and forty years of experience to his name, To brings this movie to life. The choice to replace traditional sets with those more reminiscent of stage productions, he immediately immerses us in atmosphere. Sure Kat’s sort-of arc isn’t thrilling by itself, but within the confines of To’s barebones steel-bar environments, it’s made more interesting by proxy. Every part of this movie looks like it was filmed in a scaffolding factory and it totally works. The cold, neon capitalistic world of Hong Kong is the perfect setting for this sort of design. The offices look modern and the apartments – merely a bed and a few pieces of furniture swimming in a vast black space – feel empty and lonely. Office definitely wouldn’t have worked as well as it did without To’s keen eye.
It’s just a shame that because of this, we’re almost expecting to be thrown into a heightened reality where anything can be accepted, but the story never takes advantage of that. It’s too basic to take full advantage of the fact that this is a musical and should act like one. But at least there are songs. The music is decent and will get your foot tapping when it is on, but it does have the disadvantage of not being particularly memorable. You don’t find yourself humming any of the pieces once the film is finished which is a shame because they’re not half bad. Getting some genuinely good singers in there (legendary C-Pop star Eason Chan makes you forget how much you hate him as soon as he opens his mouth to sing) is definitely a good idea, and helps the film gain the audience’s respect.
It might look like I’m being too down on this film, and I’m really not. I had a good time during it. I liked it a hell of a lot more than that other 2015 Office movie. However, I do believe that a lot of this is more to do with the fresh visuals and the songs than anything else. The bulk of the film is fine: sure it’s unfocused but the actors are charming (Sylvia Chang brings an elegant sophistication to the role, and Chow Yun-fat can’t escape his natural charisma) and the music is pretty good when you’re listening to it. It just doesn’t stick with you as long as I think it wanted to. But hey, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it at the time.
Verdict: While never having that wow-factor it should have, Office remains a pretty solid good time, filled with excellent visuals and half-decent songs
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 7/10
David: He’s the worst, isn’t he?
Best on-screen couple: Sylvia Chang and Chow Yun-fat are great together
Coma storyline: Did that conclude? I can’t remember
Also known as: 华丽上班族
Director: Johnnie To
Writer: Sylvia Chang
Chow Yun-fat – Ho Chung-ping
Sylvia Chang – Winnie Cheung
Eason Chan – David Wong
Tang Wei – Sophie
Wang Ziyi – Lee Seung
Lang Yueting – Kat Ho
Cheung Siu-fai – John Suen
Tien Hsin – Ka-ling
Timmy Hung – Howard
Stephanie Che – Ban-ban
Mickey Chu – Shum Hoi
Mimi Kung – Mrs. Ho
Lo Hoi-pang – Jones & Sunn security guard
Other films like this: All of Johnnie To’s films have the same story:visual ratio
Or maybe The Wayward Cloud