Hong Kong director Johnnie To is best know for his crime and action films, but this time he directs a musical drama, Office. Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s former musical stage play, Design for living, this film showcases Hong Kong’s workplace rituals and environment.
The story is set in the year of 2008, and depicts the workplace struggles in a soon-to-be-public company named Jones & Sunn. The general manager Winnie Cheung (Sylvia Chang) has been the mistress of the chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat) for years. She wants to fight for her benefits when she discovers Ho hasn’t put her onto the shareholder list. However, her plan is dashed by a new-hire, Lee Seung (Wang Ziyi) who inadvertently leaks the secret to Ho and Ho’s daughter Kat (Lang Yueting).
The vice president David Wong (Eason Chan), whom Chang also has an affair with, speculates in the stock market using company’s funds. When he is stuck in a financial crisis, he seduces the accountant Sophie (Tang Wei) to help him to cover his tracks.
In order to create the effect of a stage play, Office is shot in a splendid virtual site built especially for this film. It cost 6.3 million US dollars and took about ten months to design and construct. The setting replicates the cityscape of Hong Kong, from the office building and metro to restaurant, apartment and late-night convenience store. The most memorable installation is the giant clock suspending from the ceiling, reminding the audience that time is money and office workers are the slaves to time.
However, this huge cost cannot obscure the film’s fatal flaw – it does not work as a musical. The songs in Office are written by Albert Leung and composed by Ta-yu Lo. Both of them are famous award-winning songwriters, but the golden brand fails to guarantee the quality of the music. The songs don’t leave any impression, making the film a skyscraper without foundation.
Musicals requires actors to be both good at singing and acting. Eason Chan and Tien Hsin both have this experience yet Chan doesn’t play to his full level. Tang Wei is well-known for art films, but she looks awkward when she has to sing. Her acting is also over- exaggerated and disappointing.
Two other lacklustre performances come from the youngest stars, Wang and Lang. Especially Lang, who plays Kat Ho. Her performance is wooden and consists of the same miserable look from beginning to end.
Even though it is To’s first time to direct a musical film, Office still has his strong personal style. Like his former films, this movie tries to reflect humanity and Hong Kong society. To uses his trademark wide-angle shots to include as many people as he can in the frame. His attempts to break restrictions are easily visible. Characters look directly into the camera and tell us their inner thoughts, for example when David says with ecstasy that the oil price is going up again and Sophie wants to take leave when she loses touch with her fiancé.
Office portrays the Hong Kong workplace well that we see scenes of a smoking break on the rooftop and a dinner party at the restaurant. But these are weakened by the predictable plot, affected romantic story and poor performance. A simple workplace story under the cloak of musical film, Office is unable to provide much musical enjoyment.