With his flair for elaborate choreography and sinuous camerawork, it was only a matter of time before that Hong Kong genre mixmaster Johnnie To got around to directing a full-blown musical. And he’s pulled it off with unsurprising elan in “Office,” a sparkling, visually inventive romp through the executive suites of a Chinese financial company immediately before and after the 2008 global financial crisis. Adapted by lead actress Sylvia Chang from her hit stage play “Design for Living,” this boardroom tuner charmingly mines humor, romance and no shortage of eccentric lyrics from the world of spreadsheets and stock portfolios, but its real achievement is a formal and conceptual one, conjuring a tongue-in-cheek vision of modern capitalism in splendidly Brechtian terms (and in widescreen 3D, to boot). An elaborate construct and a stylish treat for To’s fans, “Office” may prove too singular an operation to earn high profits outside Asia.
Although he remains best known for his stunning collaborations with another Hong Kong auteur, Wong Kar-wai, production designer William Chang (working with Yau Wai-ming) has outdone himself with “Office,” a picture that gives you far more to look at (and think about) than its humdrum title would suggest. The film’s corporate setting has been styled with rigorous artifice — all blacks, whites and grays, with a network of vertical lines running in the background, and an enormous, vaguely Steampunk-ish clock positioned at the center of the action. It’s a spartan, highly theatrical presentation that befits the material’s legit origins (not to be confused with Noel Coward’s “Design for Living”), but what To does with the space is, as ever, vividly cinematic, from the complex formations in which he moves his actors to the richly immersive effect of the 3D.
The time is 2008, shortly before the fall of Lehman Brothers, and with all eyes turned eastward, the mainland-based trading company Jones & Sunn is preparing for its IPO. Our guide to this dazzling and ruthlessly competitive corporate environment is young Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi), a bright-eyed young probationary hire whose eager, can-do spirit walks a fine line between sincerity and satire. He’s paired on the first day with a demure and mysterious fellow intern, Kat (Lang Yueting), who is clearly over-qualified for her job in a way that gives even the hard-working Lee pause, and who is just as clearly guarding some private agenda. She’s not the only one. Among the worst-kept secrets is the on-and-off affair between the company’s formidable CEO, Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang), and the handsome, aloof chairman, Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat), whom we see occasionally see hovering at the hospital bedside of his comatose wife.
The most reckless of the company’s executives is David Wang (Eason Chan), who operates with wild abandon whether he’s cooking the books or throwing himself at another major player, the unhappily engaged Sophie Lu (Tang Wei). The interconnectedness of love and work — and the way personal intrigues can lend unwelcome new meaning to the idea of “going public” — is one of “Office’s” more pointed themes, right down to the sweet flirtation that develops between Lee and Kat, who perform a wistful romantic duet in one of the film’s musical highlights. Elsewhere, To and Sylvia Chang treat their characters’ questionable fidelity as a free-floating metaphor for the lack of financial integrity in their dealmaking, which will eventually threaten the company’s fortunes — especially as concerns its partnership with Madame, a Lancome-style cosmetics firm whose lustrous reputation can only conceal its declining revenues for so long.
From “Life Without Principle” to “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” (and its recent sequel), To is no stranger to milking drama and whirligig comedy from the complex mechanisms of the global marketplace. Capturing a snapshot of a small microcosm of the Chinese (and global) economy just before a fateful point of no return, “Office” isn’t as somber or scalding a critique of capitalism as “Life Without Principle,” in part because of the intrinsic dynamism of the film’s form and genre. The musical numbers (the work of Taiwanese songwriter Lo Tayu and Hong Kong lyricist Lin Xi) are admittedly more serviceable than inspired, and as is often the case with songs or poems performed in an unfamiliar language, non-Chinese audiences may struggle to connect the lyrics into a coherent whole, even with the aid of subtitles. Still, a few bits may still be buzzing in your ears as you exit the theater, notably the droning, high-pitched chorus that plays over the opening and closing credits — the sound of a busy hive of human activity, toiling endlessly in service of a system that never sleeps.
It’s a hollow, ruthless system, and “Office” at times suggests — in scenes of these young go-getters moving toward the elevators in carefully organized packs, their heads bowed in supplication toward their smartphones — that the lockstep tendencies of communism have essentially been replaced here by a different but no less stifling conformity. (“Look, we’re social elites; look, we’ll build a financial empire with one heart,” the people sing, in what sounds like a new kind of nationalist ode.) The giant clock ticking away in the background becomes a continual signifier not only that Time Is Money (as if anyone here needs reminding), but also that time is slowly slipping away for all involved. These are men and women who have devoted themselves to tracing patterns of human desire as revealed through chains of supply and demand, but who are themselves enacting a simulacrum of real life rather than the real thing.
But as deadening as life in the fast lane may be, “Office” itself never feels soulless. Its characters may be cogs in a giant machine, but they never come across as automatons, and their wild and unruly passions have a way of gumming up the gears. Chan makes a memorable sleaze, while Tang registers strongly as a workaholic whose personal and professional lives are continually spinning out of control. Wang’s energetic performance as a young titan in the making lends the film much of its cheeky energy, and while he and Lang make a cute couple, the actor has an even stronger rapport with Sylvia Chang’s CEO, who regards this young male apprentice with amusement and affection. Chang, the original mastermind behind the play, delivers a superbly restrained performance here as a self-made woman who conveys poise and authority in every understated word and gesture — even when the system finally ruptures and betrays the people who helped build it, beam by shimmering beam.