“Money makes the world go around” was a popular song in Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” about the global economic crisis of 1929. Speeding forward to 2007, not much has changed. We are at the edge of another big collapse of global markets. A few months before Lehman Brothers declares bankruptcy. The Billion Dollar Company Jones & Sunn from Hong Kong is about to go public.

Johnnie To, who is mainly known in the West for his die-hard action flicks, adapts Sylvia Chang’s play “Design for Living”. Together they produced a shorted cinematic version of the four-hour long musical from 2008.

Office is screening at /Slash Festival

The musical is about two new hires at Jones & Sunn, who put all their dreams into this job. Ultimately, they get entangled in the logic of intrigue rules, power play, and love-hate relationships. A cynical take on the mechanism of neoliberal markets and the expectations of a generation brought up in capitalism.

The movie has big names in it. Beginning at the top with Chow Yun-fat as the Chairman of the company and Sylvia Chang as his Mistress and CEO of Jones & Sunn. The new starters are played by Eason Chan, who is a highly acclaimed singer, and Tang Wei. Also you see a lot familiar faces from other Johnnie To productions like Eddie Cheung and Lo Hoi-Pang. As you notice the ensemble is excellent and many of them know each other from other productions, which helps the overall vibe of the acting.

There are not many solo numbers, but mainly group performances. Taking place in the open structured office scenery, the choreographies are on point and contain catchy melodies. Nevertheless, Johnnie To could have made more out of the talented voices that are part of the ensemble.

Most interesting is To’s concept of space. Neon lights, defining the walls and hallways, reflecting lights on shiny floors and resemble the immaculate appearance of the office workers that are dressed up in fancy vestures and sharp suits. The open space concept creates a surreal impression and reminds the viewer of the roots of the movie – the theatre stage.

The stage is shown by the camera work of Cheng Siu-Keng, who is frequently collaborating with Johnnie To’s independent film production company, Milkyway Image. His camera slides across the floors, keeping up with the movement of the singers as they deliver their performances.

One could argue that Johnnie To’s approach is too polished and conceals big parts of the criticism about the striving for wealth and power. Certainly, he tried to put on a big show for a mass audience. But together with Sylvia Chang he develops an interesting concept of the musical film genre and doesn’t fall for the traps of kitsch.

 

“Office” was shown at the 9th /slash Filmfestival in Vienna, which is showing much more Asian Cinema until the 30th of September.

 

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