Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Global Economic Crash: The Musical."

Although part of it is based around the 2008 crash, Sylvia Chang's play, Design For Living, is much more focused on day to day office corruption and could easily be restructured to fit another time period - even the troubled Thirties when Noel Coward's play of the same name (featuring some similar characters) was set. Now that she has adapted it for film, however, and placed it in the hands of noir director Johnnie To, it has become Global Economic Crash: The Musical. Like The Big Short, it uses a playful form to go to very dark places. This question is whether this bizarre combination of cheery pop parade and continent-ravaging tragedy can find an audience.

Whatever else it is, Office is visually stunning. It's constructed like theatre, with To's camera moving around a single giant set designed by William Chang. Two enormous, curving staircases dominate in the style of Golden Age Hollywood musicals; beneath and along them are spaces where the office workers who make up the film's cast can met, and at the top is the CEO's office, the 71st floor, which can also be reached by a limited-access lift. There's also a meeting room, a cafeteria, a tube train, 'outdoor' steps and a street, and employees' homes, given their personal character by temporary backdrops which we can always see around the sides of. Many other backdrops, positioned as office walls, are transparent, so we can see work going on behind the characters we're focused on; and most of the time we can also hear the buzz of office chatter in the background of conversations, to the point where later scenes, played out in silence, develop an eerie quality. It's like Dogville with a six million dollar budget and pop tunes.

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The effect of this staging is to show us that the characters can never get away from work, even at home, and that they are always being watched by both their superiors and co-workers - the office is rife with gossip. It's a film for the information age - as if immersed in social media, we are constantly consuming and processing information, trying to decide what is and isn't significant. This could make it a rather tiring film to watch, but the musical numbers provide relief and let us marvel at Yuri Ng's stunning choreography - finally, David Fincher has a rival for those long panning shots through offices with dozens of characters active at once. The songs are fluff (and sometimes more biting for it) but the dance numbers are quite something.

We are introduced to the office along with two new employees, each undergoing three months' probation. Kat (Long Yueting) is sweet, efficient, and possessed of a secret. Li Xiang ("Li for Ang Lee, Xiang for dream) (Wang Liyi) is impetuous, has an amazing memory, and is talented enough to get himself in trouble. As the story develops, so does their attraction to each other, but neither has any confidence in their ability to have a successful relationship in an environment where everybody seems to be having an affair and the impact of long hours on home life is suffocating romance. This is a build up to the film's darkest scene, in which a fragile and infatuated employee is charmed and bullied by her manager into concealing the company's losses. How much of this went on in real life?

At the centre of this web of activity is Winnie (Sylvia Chang herself), referred to by the staff as Mrs. Ho because of her obvious intimacy with company chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun Fat). Her role is considerably scaled down from the play but her performance still has more depth than many of the others, showing us a complex woman who adheres to her precise function in this giant machine (a huge clock with exposed gears makes sure we can't forget the metaphor) but retains her humanity even as others are losing theirs. Ironically, she's the only one who successfully keeps her mask in place as things begin to crumble.

With superficiality one of its themes, Office sometimes struggles to keep its characters interesting, its story compelling. It's dazzling viewing, however, and underneath its soap opera plot is an incisive critique of the corruption that went on to ruin the lives of millions.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2016
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Musical set in the world of finance.

Director: Johnnie To

Writer: Sylvia Chang, Wai Ka-Fai

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Sylvia Chang, Eason Chan, Wei Tang, Cheung Siu-Fai

Year: 2015

Runtime: 119 minutes

Country: Hong Kong, China

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