Chow Yun Fat in a movie musical? Well, yes—as an elegant, cunning CEO—but he doesn’t sing and isn’t really the star of the show. There are many top-notch Chinese actors in “Office,” the 2015 big-screen adaptation of the stage play “Design for Living,” Sylvia Chang’s snappy, bitingly accurate portrait of corporate culture and office politics.
Chang, the foremost star in the film given her very fine performance as well as for being playwright-producer-lead actress in the source material—which, after its first six months of touring Chinese-speaking territories, was touted by the New York Times as “the most successful Mandarin-language contemporary theater production in recent memory”—is an accomplished filmmaker herself. But the director’s chair went to another, which greatly benefited the film, no offense to the multitasking Chang (who’s also film producer).
In the hands of veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, who takes his first crack at musicals, “Office” unfolds as a highly stylized, visually arresting piece of cinema. It’s got the grit and verve of “Chicago,” as well as the mighty ensembles of “Moulin Rouge!” and “Across the Universe.”
And just like Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 jukebox spectacle and Julie Taymor’s 2007 film homage to Beatles music, nobody in “Office” actually delivers glass-shattering power vocals—yet the songs and the imagery accompanying them will stick with you long after the credits roll.
For example, a segment early in the film with a battalion of employees intoning what sounds like a factory workers’ anthem. Synchronized and with robotic precision, they move into and through the office—a stage of symmetrical lines, faintly illuminated stark walls, narrow winding staircases, bright fluorescent shafts of light above—then finally settle at their desks to begin the work demanded of them by the financial firm Jones & Sunn.
There’s also a tender duet between the unscrupulous executive David Wang (a rakish Eason Chang) and the hardworking but heartbroken analyst Sophie (Wei Tang of 2007’s “Lust, Caution”), both characters mulling over their difficult circumstances during a quick break in the mezzanine. The actors simply stand in place, their voices mellow and melancholic, but the impact lies in how they’re framed and reframed, minute and unrecognizable from in between the mechanical pieces of a gigantic revolving clock lodged right smack in the center of the office.
The lavish, over-the-top production design gives the most stellar performance. It’s the foundation for the film’s choreography, movement, composition and editing. It can dwarf the corporate players, be they top brass or entry-level employees. It can box them in like hamsters in cages.
Perhaps that’s also why the film didn’t need exceptional singers, only experienced actors more than capable of carrying a tune (maybe also do a cross between rap and hip hop). The film isn’t entirely sung through anyway, and artists like Sylvia Chang, Eason Chang, Chow and Tang are capable of standing out or blending in no matter the setting.
It’s almost like the actual corporate world, where individuals can shine with great effort or recede in the background with the rest of the work force. As in real life, the celluloid office shows that hard work (rendered or perceived) doesn’t always pay off.
“Office” will be screened with five other films at the 2018 Spring Film Festival on Feb. 13-18 at Shangri-La Plaza, Edsa cor. Shaw Blvd., Mandaluyong. Organized by Ateneo de Manila University’s Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies (tel. 4266001 locals 5280, 5284), the festival coincides with other Chinese New Year events also at Shang.
For film and event schedules, visit shangrila-plaza.com; @shangrilaplazaofficial on Facebook and Instagram.