Company intrigue will always make for an interesting topic and films and Johnnie To tackled that theme in Office. It’s a film I wanted to watch when it came out during TIFF but couldn’t for scheduling reasons. Better late than never though, as OVID adds To’s musical – wait what? – to its service. To uses that genre instead of making a documentary or a pop dramedy. He is, after all, depicting the least lively subject for a musical – the 2008 financial crisis. And he adds one contrivance after another, contrivance perhaps too cruel of a word to describe tricks, most of them surprisingly work. (This is by the way my second To, my first being Loving You, which is still taking a while for me to remember. Sorry).
To shoots this musical on a black soundstage with open concept sets, adding a few thin coloured columns that makes it seem like his characters are in Tron. The sets, perhaps, hint to the vulnerability of the characters and the world that they helped build. That’s one of many interpretations, including obvious ones about this world, and ours’, artificiality. Contrivance number 2 is using Chow Yun Fat – skinnier than ever, no pun intended – as a narrative device. In the ‘real life’ of this fictional world, he’s Ho, a CEO of a Hong Kong-based company.
But Ho is also the image in the head of two interns who want to survive the company’s probationary period. Those two interns are Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yueting). They are under the mentorships of David (Eason Chan) and Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang, also the film’s producer and screenwriter). There’s also Tang Kah-ling (Tien-Hsin), the kind of woman who thinks that hoop earrings are work appropriate and is thus my kind of woman. These six core characters make for at least three plot arcs when maybe one or two would have sufficed.
The only nitpick I can think of at this point so far is that Chang and To are juggling way too many of these arcs here. But at least they know to prioritize Xiang and Kat’s complex working relationship. It’s also detail specific, as they use brands from all over Southeast Asia. They drink Sam Miguel beer from the Philippines after work and Kopiko from Indonesia during. The characters also all use Blackberries, which, during 2008, only really covered 13.8% of the cellphone market. Blackberry, nonetheless, is a brand most people associate with a certain period. Shade points to Chang and To using a Canadian hardware manufacturer to show a world that will change but will also stay the same.
But let’s return to Xiang and Kat, because they use these social situations to size each other up, especially since a few of the things that Kat say about herself don’t reflect what Xiang sees. There’s at least musical number involving the film’s couples, including Xiang and Kat, that sound like love songs but hide deeper meanings. They also expose how manipulative and, obviously, selfish these characters are. Other numbers have the other characters sing marches. They sound like marches from China’s communist period had Chang and To not added the synth drum beats.
Xiang and Kat aren’t the only testy working relationship here. As it turns out, I have to introduce at least one more character, Sophie, who has a secret romance with David. He then manipulates her into doing the kind of thing that sinks markets like they did in 2008. More kudos to this film for using Wei. And she almost makes me want to just watch Long Day’s Journey into Night instead of doing my usual catchup. Almost.
That said, I guess my second nitpick here is that it would have been better for David to bamboozle her bit by bit throughout the film. That seems better than him doing a bad boy bit that somehow works on the houndstooth wearing Sophie, who should know better. Some characters are literally twirling their mustaches here. And in some ways, the 2008 financial industry feels like an alien civilization now. But Chang and To still let some moral ambiguity to make that industry and that time feel human.