Making Waves – Navigators of Hong Kong Cinema
JOHNNIE WITHOUT A GUN – Tribute to Johhnie To
華麗上班族 (Wah Lai Sheung Ban Jeuk)
Hong Kong, China, 2015, 119’, Cantonese, Mandarin, English
Directed by: Johnnie To
Screenplay: Sylvia Chang
Photography (color): Cheng Siu-keung
Editing: David Richardson
Production Design: William Chang, Alfred Yau
Music: Lo Ta-yu, Keith Chan
Producers: Johnnie To, Sylvia Chang
Cast: Sylvia Chang (Winnie Chang), Wang Ziyi (Lee Xiang), Lang Yueting (Kat Ho), Eason Chan (David Wang), Tang Wei (Sophie), Tien Hsin (Kar-ling), Eddie Cheung (John), Stephanie Che (Cheng Ben), Timmy Hung (Howard), Lo Hoi-pang (Lobby Security Guard), Mimi Kung (Ho’s wife), Chow Yun-fat (Ho Chung-ping)
Date of First Release in Territory: September 2nd, 2015 (China); September 24th, 2015 (Hong Kong)
Was it really such a surprise for Johnnie To to make a musical? His films’ pacing, regardless of genre, often depends on rhythm and perfect coordination of movements. Their acrobatic and sweeping camera movements are reminiscent of classic Hollywood musicals. In fact, Office is the intersection of To’s past and current thematic interests. He had explored the messiness of office dynamics (albeit comedically) before in Needing You... and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart; he also gave a stinging indictment of modern greed in Hong Kong with Life Without Principle (and does it again later with his short film in Septet: The Story of Hong Kong). Add those and a star-studded cast that also includes a highly anticipated reunion of All About Ah-Long, and making Office seemed like a no-brainer.
The other key figure of Office is Sylvia Chang. Not only did the veteran actress-filmmaker write the script based on the popular 2008 play she co-wrote and starred in; she also reprised her leading role in the film and roped in veteran musician Lo Ta-yu to write original songs that turned the play into a musical. Instead of transporting the play into real-world locations, To made the bold choice of setting the entire film on Brechtian sets designed by the great William Chang and Alfred Yau. The circular motifs around the transparent sets suggest that a company is a machine, and the people within it are all moving gears that keep it running.
The script’s large ensemble of characters covers all levels of the film’s fictional firm, Jones & Sunn. At the top of the pyramid are company chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat) and CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang), who happens to be Ho’s mentee and longtime mistress. In middle management are David (Eason Chan), who is secretly embezzling company funds to make risky side investments for Winnie, and accountant Sophie (Tang Wei), who seems more focused on her boyfriend back home than her job. Finally, joining the white-collar workers below are idealist Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and Kat (Lang Yueting), who can’t reveal her identity as Chung-ping’s daughter, but takes the executive elevator to work anyway.
These complex dynamics play out as the company prepares for its IPO just before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Winnie schemes to liberate herself from Chung-ping, David’s greed causes him to play a dangerous game with his dubious investments, and Kat struggles to keep her real identity hidden while she develops a relationship with the naïve Lee Xiang. The Chinese title of Office roughly translates to “Elegant Office Workers,” an intentional irony considering all the dirty business in the story that is exposed by the lack of a glossy façade on the transparent set. The number of narrative strands and character motivations can be overwhelmed by To’s complex visual designs upon first viewing, but Chang’s web of character dynamics is just as carefully designed and worthy of notice on repeat viewings.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to be captivated by the visual mastery on display. William Chang and Alfred Yau’s magnificent award-winning set – which even includes a fake subway station – is an amazing achievement. (It’s also interesting to see To return to contained sets later on both Three and Chasing Dream.) To’s usual cinematographer Cheng Siu-keung once again creates physics-defying sweeping shots that whip through the huge set with little effort. Even the surreal CGI of the driving scenes works surprisingly well with the otherworldly aura of the visual design. Most of all, seeing a filmmaker take such a bold creative leap nearly 30 years into his directorial career is why Office deserves a revisit on the big screen.
BIO & FILMOGRAPHY: see Life Without Principle