Office | Johnnie To | China, Hong Kong | 2015 | 119 minutes
Jake Smith looks at Johnnie To’s latest and finds a brilliant film that has distinctive reasons for being part of this week’s Missed Madison Fest.
At the start of any film from Johnnie To’s production company Milkyway Image Ltd., the diamond-shaped logo flies in from frame right. The sound of a small but powerful electric spark—akin to something out of a mad scientist’s lab—accompanies the logo’s entrance. Invariably, it is a spark that electrifies the screen, and invigorates the audience in front of it.
The offbeat musical Office, To’s latest production, is no different in this respect. This is certainly one of my favorite movies of 2015, with an immediate energy thanks to its music and staging. In watching it, I felt as though it were a bizarre combination of Jacques Demy (sans the brilliant colors) and Lars von Trier (sans the spirit-crushing worldview), all filtered through a Hong Kong lens.
Oh, and also in 3-D. (Or at least it’s supposed to be; I saw it in 2-D, but more on that in a bit.)
Based on co-star/screenwriter Sylvia Chang’s play Design for Living, the film’s backdrop is the world of big business at the time of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. We follow multiple characters, from new hires to the big bosses, as they negotiate innovation, global deals, and ultimately scandal concurrent with the financial crisis, as well as their own dreams of making a living and making a life. We enter the story from the point of view of two new hires (played by Wang Ziyi and Lang Yueting) and get a sense of the whole operation.
As we get to know the rest of the characters, including Sylvia Chang herself as one of the top executives and a special appearance by Chow Yun-Fat as the CEO, it quickly becomes apparent that the film is a classic melodrama as well as a musical. Mysteries abound. Why does one of the new hires get such special treatment? Who does she know? Who is pining after whom? Who is making deals behind others’ backs? Along with these generically requisite yet charming mysteries, the characters also take time out through the course of the film to express their innermost dreams and anxieties. Naturally, this often happens in song.
This last part hits on one of the things I love about this film and about Hong Kong film in general: its unbridled sentimentality. Hong Kong films are fearless in their tonal shifts, and viewers who can handle them are rewarded with a thoroughly satisfying variety of emotional experience. It has been said that musicals operate on the principle that characters burst into song when their emotions can’t be contained by standard dialogue. Whether sung or spoken, Chang’s script brilliantly illustrates the genuine idealism and naïveté of youth, the exciting toxicity of office gossip, the biting cynicism of the corporate world, and the gravity of response to crisis. The musical numbers that move us through this spectrum of emotional scenarios are sometimes peppy, sometimes sappy, sometimes bemusing, but always entertaining and dynamically staged. In the midst of high artifice, rendering Office as a musical manages to convey far more truth than I had frankly expected.
Speaking of high artifice, the production design from Wong Kar-wai collaborators William Chang and Alfred Yau echoes the theatrical nature of the source material. Rooms are entirely beams and girders; there are almost no solid walls to be found. One could read this design sensibility as modernism gone mad, but with the anxieties that the film raises, I can’t help but think that this skeletal architecture also serves as an indictment of the fragility and precariousness of the modern business world.
More than that, it gives To—an acknowledged master in the art of cinematic staging—an opportunity to play with that staging in a way that makes me positively yearn to see it in 3-D. Take a look at the photo above. Imagine all those lights appearing to extend from the screen, to say nothing of the multi-planar staging with characters walking—and sometimes dancing—every which way. Fair to say with this combination of story, design, and direction, what might be mundane with another’s direction is magic with To’s.
I wanted to tackle this film for our Missed Madison Festival for a couple of reasons. As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a huge fan of Johnnie To. He is, quite simply, one of cinema’s contemporary masters. Secondly, while I have hope that it will play someday, seeing Johnnie To’s films on screens has always been difficult. For the ones that have played Madison, local filmgoers should heartily thank the Wisconsin Film Festival and the UW Cinematheque. I certainly do; to wit, Exiled and Drug War remain two of my all-time theatrical screening experiences. And yet Office poses a unique challenge for our market. Ignoring the fact that the film is tonally difficult for some to grasp, and that neither musicals nor subtitles ever sell like they should, the 3-D presentation draws a line for exhibition. Multiplexes that have the technology probably wouldn’t show this film in even a 1-week run. Exhibitors like Cinematheque, the Wisconsin Film Festival, or Spotlight Cinema might show it, but they don’t have the 3-D technology (not yet, anyway). Such a singular film from such a talented director should not pass us by so easily.
People who are only familiar with Johnnie To’s crime pictures may be surprised to see this kind of musical fare from the man who stages a gunfight every bit as well as (and arguably better than) John Woo. Longtime To fans will go in thinking that this might be another notch in the belt of an artist who handles other genres as well as he does action. I would hope both groups would come out satisfied; it’s simply like nothing else I’ve seen in recent memory. While it may have missed Madison (for now), if you get the opportunity to see it, don’t miss it yourself.