What a pitch it must have been: a musical about corporate culture complete with Busby Berkeley dance numbers on IPOs and mergers, production design reminiscent of Jacques Tati’s Playtime and a story sending up modern office life. It’s a shame it turns out to be such a dud.
Johnnie To’s musical certainly looks the part. An elaborate, brightly coloured set from production designer William Chang houses the office, looking like a cross between giant Lego pieces and a steampunk version of a Bond villain hideout. There are no hard walls, just curved metallic latticing. Even the orange underground train that brings them to the entrance of Jones & Sunn conforms to the dominant style, with gaps for windows and roof but no material to fill it.
Into this garish world of wage slavery come a stream of workers singing and dancing their way to banks of desks, dominated by a giant rotating clock, there to remind employees to keep committing more time to this vanilla conglomerate that’s on the verge of an IPO and takeover deal.
It’s there the fun stops. A bland story takes shape in which enthusiastic Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and bosses daughter Kat (Lang Yueting) try to rise through the ranks, while inching ever closer to a romance almost entirely devoid of romance. At the other end of the ladder, intrigue, affairs and fraud reign with money mysteriously disappearing from accounts and dodgy deals signed into existence under the noses of CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang also adapting the screenplay from her own stage play) and Chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat).The spark meant to ignite this uninspiring narrative into life is sadly missing. For a musical, there’s nowhere near enough songs to inject excitement into the leaden plot. When Office goes full song and dance, it’s actually rather exhilarating. Most of the time the best it has to offer are a few brief snatches before we’re back to boardroom meetings and sales pitches.
Even more unforgivably, it’s not funny enough. For a film that professes to poke fun at office life, tongue rarely finds its way anywhere near cheek. Conversations about stock market flotations have little satirical edge, collapsing into insipidly straight-laced dialogue about stock market flotations. Too often it’s painfully earnest. Only on a couple of occasions, notably a wonderfully stupid song that takes place as the camera hovers over a spreadsheet, does Office get close to the potential suggested by its crazy premise.
Johnnie To’s career has been one of great variety, the Hong Kong filmmaker proving time and again how adept he is at applying his stylised approach to a multitude of genres. It seems the office musical is a step too far. He creates the world for Office to soar, but can’t do enough to get it off the ground.