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Office (2015/China/Hong Kong)
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by Jay Seaver

"A satiric office romance musical that has moments where it's sublime."
5 stars

As a fan of filmmakers giving me something great that I don't necessarily expect, I was kind of already in the tank for "Office" (aka "Gorgeous Office Workers" aka "Design for Living") - who expected the first time that Chow Yun-fat worked with director Johnnie To in twenty-five years (during which time they both gained international renown) would be a musical rather than the action they are both best known for? On top of that, though, it's a good one, and eye-popping visually to boot. It's further proof that Johnnie To can apparently do any kind of movie he puts his mind to.

The office in question is that of Jones & Sunn International, a Hong Kong corporation that is about to go public. Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang Ai-chia) is the CEO, Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat) is the chairman of the board, and they have been having an affair for decades, one that is something of an open secret. Winnie is also alleged to be involved with her subordinate David Wang (Eason Chan Yik-shun), who is investing a lot of money in unstable investments on the eve of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy while also drawing closer to Sophie (Tang Wei), the serious comptroller whose dedication to her work has just about strained her engagement to a man back home to the breaking point. New to the office are Lee Xiang (Wang Zi-yi) and Kat Ho (Lang Yue-ting), and, yes, she is Chung-ping's daughter, though she tries not to advertise it, though if Xiang can see that something is up, the pair are too infatuated for him to notice.

In addition to playing Winnie, Sylvia Chang writes and produces, having also penned and starred in the play, which was apparently much more of a star vehicle than this ensemble piece. Even with this reduced prominence, she has created a heck of a role for herself and delivers on every facet; Winnie is formidable but not cruel, a respected leader although not the maternal type. It's in Winnie's dealings with Chung-ping that Chang does her best work; as much as their history is laid out for the viewer, it's from watching her that one sees how keenly aware she is of the bounds on their relationship even as she quietly desires more. She projects this impressive level-headedness when others are panicking without leaving any doubt at what she's feeling. She gets most of the scenes with Chow Yun-fat, who is similarly imposing as Chairman Ho although without the same sort of humanity; he's a stern one - baby-faced in his youth, Chow makes good use of the sharper lines his face has gained with age - although his half of the complicated relationship they share has some interesting nuance as well.

Perhaps disappointingly, Chow never gets to sing in the film, although the other main couples do get a chance to do a bit of everything. Relative newcomers Wang Zi-yi and Lang Yue-ting have the simplest and most charming romance as the fresh-faced new hires, mustering enough charm that viewers likely won't mind their being pushed toward to fore despite never really having that much to do. The great material goes to Eason Chan and Tang Wei as the most obviously overstressed pair, with Tang especially excellent at making Sophie appear as someone who would seem ferocious to those under her but is rapidly fraying. As much as they are already lovers, their critical scene plays like a seduction of a different kind, even if it obviously involves money rather than sex, and Tang invests it with the sort of panic and desperation that makes it clear that there will be repercussions well beyond them.

That scene goes in and out of song, and while the songs can sometimes be uneven, they are also some of the film's sharpest moments, most notably the opener which has a group of accountants and the chorus singing about checking the accounts for an upcoming IPO. Though I can't speak for the original Cantonese and/or Mandarin lyrics, the songwriting team of Luo Dayou and Lu Xi come up with material that shows barbed satire, at least in the subtitles, and catchy tunes that help the movie move smoothly along. Though only Eason Chan in the main cast is particularly known as a singer (he is a major recording artist in Hong Kong), the whole cast equips themselves well, and To's long experience directing action translates to a musical very well - the dance isn't always complex, but you can see him thinking of how to heighten emotion or emphasize ideas, from a character's exit to a final shot that seems inspired by orbits.

He also has an amazing set to play in, a massive construction of open metallic latticework with a titanic clock spinning in the center. My first impression upon seeing the workers filing out of the train toward the elevators underneath that clock was that this was a twenty-first century white-collar Metropolis, although the way walls are generally delimited by markings on the floor calls to mind Takashi Miike's Big Bang Love: Juvenile A or Lars von Trier's Dogville, only expanded vertically for a modern, urban environment. The production design makes the office feel inescapable - the subway seems to connect almost directly, and even when people go home, with all paths seeming to curve back toward the set and prominent clocks in other locations seeming to bring the audience back. With this thing, To is able to emphasize the production's origins on the stage and as a result take some of the liberties in being non-literal that the stage allows while at the same time using both its immense size - far too large for most theaters - and a camera that zooms in for close-ups to make something that is unmistakably a movie.

(The credits include stereographers, indicating that it's Hong Kong release is 3D, although from the 2D release it's getting in America, that's probably the "unnecessary 90% of the time but with a few great shots" type of 3D.)

To and Chang throw in plenty of digs at the financial crisis and Chinese materialism, material that has been a major part of his recent works from "Life Without Principle" on (I'm not sure I agree with the reading that calls "Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2"'s ending brilliant on those terms, but I can see it), and while it's not always the sharpest and most biting satire, it's coupled with some fantastic style and pure entertainment to create something that, ironically, might have been better off with a more traditional festival-circuit-then-boutique-houses release than the simultaneous one it's getting, as it should excite not just fans of Chinese pop culture, but those of exciting world film.

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originally posted: 09/20/15 06:24:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 London Film Festival For more in the 2015 London Film Festival series, click here.

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12/15/15 rifkellrcmr USA 2 stars
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  18-Sep-2015 (NR)


  10-Sep-2015 (PG)

Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Sylvia Chang
  Ka-Fai Wai

  Chow Yun-Fat
  Sylvia Chang
  Eason Chan
  Tang Wei
  Wang Ziyi
  Yue-ting Lang

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