★★★☆☆Adapted for the big screen by writer-actor Sylvia Chang from her own play Design For Living, attempting to pigeonhole Johnnie To's latest effort Office (2015) is a case of multiple square pegs and even more round holes. Classifying the part-musical, part-satire, part-comedy, part-Orwellian tale of consumerism and capitalism would do a disservice to the integrity of the genre-warping whole. A pre-economic crash rhapsody, set in Hong Kong on the eve of the global calamity, it encapsulates the love, greed, individual agendas, corporate intrigue and ulterior motives held by employees of Jones & Sunn, a multi-billion dollar company readying itself to go public at the most inopportune of times.
Office are particularly likeable, nor do they elicit a great deal of sympathy. The filmmaker chooses to keep an almost Brechtian distance between his actors, the subject matter and audience which means the three-dimensional photography (of cinematographer Cheng Siu-Kung) brings you closer to the magnificent set - designed by William Chang Suk-Ping - than it does to those who inhabit it.
The theatrical origins of the source material are emphasised by a minimalistic darkened sound stage location devoid of walls and stripped of any unnecessary clutter; the openness of the set a reflection of characters having nowhere to hide and being far more concerned with each other's personal business than doing their job well. Workaholic Sophie (an underused Wei Tang) is the only real exception to this rule. CEO, Winnie (Chang, whose obvious position of authority in terms of the script's intentions is evidenced by a strong performance) has been in a long-running - and widely accepted - affair with company chairman Ho (Chow Yun-Fat, wheeled in for his prestige), whose wife is in a coma. Ho's daughter, Kat (Siu-Fai Cheung), begins work alongside a fellow newbie, the grovelling and ambitious Xiang Lee (Yi Zi), under the auspices of being a regular girl, although she went to Harvard and is chauffeured to and from work. The titular workplace is filled with desks, computers and neon strip lights; a porter pushing a luggage trolley is enough to denote that an important meeting is occurring at a hotel; even exterior locations (a bar, convenience store) are pared down to the basics.
A rooftop smoke-break between Sophie and part-time lover David (Eason Chan), to the backdrop of a luminous Jones & Sunn sign and accompanied by street sounds below, is a truly impressive piece of staging. It is with David that the backstabbing and game-playing reaches its height as he gambles company money on the stock market and loses big. He is perhaps the most developed of the central cast but his calamitous demise won't have you bawling. Where Office is certainly more flamboyant are frequent occasions of the workforce breaking into song. The set pieces are well choreographed and performed admirably by a seemingly enthusiastic ensemble and further the satirical message of the piece whose ultimate aim - to show that "smart guys control money, stupid guys are controlled by money" - is achieved, albeit in an all-singing, all-dancing kind of way. The opening shot of Office shows the steady, methodical beat of a heart rate monitor. Whilst the film certainly won't put you into a coma, it won't get pulses racing as perhaps it could have done but is a clever, daring and unusual piece of cinema which fans of thinking outside the box will appreciate.
The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens