The world of Office, the latest from director Johnnie To, is a world without walls. Or, rather, a world where walls do nothing to differentiate space. It’s hard to tell where one place begins and another ends. Each scene takes place in a largely artificial environment where geometric figures and shapes suggest the outline of a room; this strategy essentially means that at any given moment there’s tons of action happening on multiple planes of the frame. Whether it’s a hospital room, a character’s apartment, there is no personal space. There’s only a series of transparent chambers where only emotional/financial transactions can take place.
Chow Yun Fat plays Chairman Ho. While his wife is in a coma, he’s been having an affair with CEO Chang for the last 20 years (played by Sylvia Chang, the film is an adaptation of her 2009 play, Design for Living), and his daughter, Kat, is now working at an entry-level position to gain knowledge of the business. One of his underlings tries to get an accountant to cook the books. Meanwhile Lee Xiang, played by Wang Ziyi (Lee for Ang Lee, Xiang for Dream – aspirational!), also starting at the company, just wants to make a good impression, achieve his dreams and ride that direct elevator to the 71st floor. The film uses all of them to explore certain attitudes and ways of living in capitalist society by testing their bonds after the 2008 crash.
Although Office ostensibly tells the story of an investment firm and its workers preparing for its IPO, it often acts like an excuse for To and his set designers to go crazy with intersecting lines, dividing up the screen into rigid units, robbing its characters of their freedom, any breathing room. Make no mistake, despite its sometimes peppy songs about capitalism, this is an aesthetically oppressive film about an oppressive system. The watchful eye of the company, personified by the omnipresent gaze of the clocks, hovers throughout many of the film’s often chaotic frames. The clock is something of a leitmotif throughout the film, dutifully showing up again and again, reminding us that nobody here is free. The office’s centerpiece is a large mechanical clock, its cogs turning, inching its characters toward financial and emotional meltdown.
The film is a musical, To’s first foray into the genre, and its an often melancholy one. Characters line up to abuse each other, lie to themselves and more, all in song. There’s a particularly cruel scene near the end where David, played by a particularly unctuous Eason Chan, somehow wins over Tang Wei’s Sophie, that is astonishing, climaxing in a duet of self-delusion, the effect of which is not unlike inserting a musical sequence smack dab in To’s earlier Life Without Principle. In their free time, minor characters meet up for drinks to sing about being a corporate slave, not being around to see their children, never finding love because they work so hard; all the while the film’s two innocents watch silently, taking everything in.
To already proved he could direct with musical grace with Sparrow but here he layers every shot with a more critical, distanced approach. There’s one number that has two characters bond while sharing a cigarette out on a balcony (do the outdoors even exist?). The song begins with each character in the frame and the camera moves from one performer’s face slowly as they sing their lines. They reminisce about their youthful dreams, about their hometowns, and how slow everything was there. It’s a lovely moment. As soon as both characters start to sing, however, To cuts to a shot that deeply embeds both characters within the clock’s mechanism, slowly moving and turning without regard to who it crushes. The camera moves in between the cogs at one point (there’s definitely some shades of Hugo in the set’s construction, but sadly the film will not play in 3D in its theatrical release in the States). It’s not subtle, but it’s beautiful and expressive.
The film’s denouement, involving a suicidal, rage-filled CGI late night drive, corporate backstabbing (at a fancy gala!), and one final, fateful elevator ride, ties all the film’s narrative threads (and also leaves some up in the air). Some people leave the company, others move up in the chain, but for its characters, this is their world, one where the morality of people’s actions isn’t always readily acknowledged. CEO Chang accepts it as the part of the price of playing the game. Lee Xiang didn’t mean his actions, but ended up benefitting from them anyway. As To lifts his camera and gazes down at his subjects scrambling into long lines to go past security and cram themselves into elevators, the artificial beams and poles of light intersecting in the frame to make up the tiny cages of each character’s existence – a cage of their own design – it’s hard to miss where To comes down on all this.
Office is now playing at the AMC Pacific Place