Hong Kong musical film tackles greed

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Set during the early stages of the 2008 global recession, action master Johnnie To’s Office zeroes in on the self-preservation that caused the financial meltdown in the first place.

by MEI LING CHEN

Office is unlike any previous Johnnie To movie. First of all, it’s a musical. Secondly, it’s not an action film. Based on Sylvia Chang’s play, Design for Living, Office portrays a Hong Kong investment firm prior to the financial meltdown of 2008 and just as the company is preparing to go public.

The film stars Chow Yun Fat as the chair of the company and Chang as the CEO. Office depicts the rise and fall of the different players in the company, each with their own schemes for making money and coming out on top. The old-timers compete to maintain power while the newcomers are just trying to survive.

Office is not subtle on taking a stance on the morality of greed and how it can control those who let it. The choice to set the film during the early stages of the global recession emphasizes the greed and self-preservation that caused the financial crisis in the first place.

A heavily-stylized film, it is staged without any walls and the set is mostly made up of boldly-coloured bars separating each location. Filming in 3D was an interesting choice for To, considering it did not seem to add anything to the film or create a particularly immersive experience. With or without 3D though, Office is still an incredibly attractive film. To — who has over 30 years of film directing and producing credits — knows when to use the colours to create a lively office setting and when to dull the scene to grey to show the isolation and loneliness of the characters.

The set design doubles as a metaphor for the corporate prison that traps these individuals, and highlights how, at work, there can be no real secrets or places to hide.

Chow and Chang are joined by an all-star cast, varying in age and experience, but it is the two seasoned actors who are the most compelling on-screen. They don’t sing as much as the other characters but they’re able to convey through their eyes as easily as the rest of the cast is through song.

Chang steals almost every scene she’s in in the role she wrote for herself. Her CEO is not only strong, quick-witted and clever, but desirable as well. The remaining characters are still commendable in their roles and there is no shortage of talent when they do sing. The only exception was Tien Hsin, portraying the office flirt Kar-Ling, when she sang about her love of brand-name products. The musical numbers can seem a bit out of place at first as they didn’t readily mix with the tone of the film. But once we dove further into the film, the songs felt less of an interruption in the narrative than a deeper reveal of the characters’ true emotions. It is a shame that it takes some time for us to get there.

The songs, composed by Lo Dayu, are sung in Mandarin. I’m curious about how a non-Chinese speaking audience would respond to a Chinese musical. It’s hard to fully get the wordplay and poetry of the lyrics through subtitles alone. The translation could use some work though as often entire verses would be summarized into one line. Speaking as someone who did understand the songs, I can attest that I will be downloading them when they become available.

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