Too To

03.25.16

Johnnie To, Office 3D, 2015, color, sound, 119 minutes.


A 3-D MUSICAL BY JOHNNIE TO, Hong Kong master of balletic gun battles to the death: Who could ask for anything more? To’s Office (2015) is certainly the most kinetically entertaining, ingeniously staged spectacle in town, and the splendid projection at the new Metrograph theater is bound to do it justice. But as a movie about the capitalist greed and corruption that has replaced communist greed and corruption in China, it lacks the satiric bite and inspired insanity, not to mention the moral complexity, of The Big Short’s vision of greed and corruption, American style. Nor does it have the energy and noir elegance of To’s signature movies, PTU (2003) and Triad Election (2006). I’m sure there are nuances which I lack the cultural background to parse, but for me Office is less than the promise of its parts.

Adapted by Sylvia Chang from her stage play Design for Living, the film is set in 2008 just before the unraveling of Lehman Brothers. A mainland Chinese trading company, Jones & Sunn (the name suggests the film’s mix of cute and ham-fisted) is preparing for its IPO. Not only is the company’s timing a disaster in terms of the approaching financial tsunami, Jones & Sunn itself is collapsing, the result of exploitative relationships and mendacious financial practices.

Office opens not in Jones & Sunn headquarters but in a hospital room, where the company’s chairman, Ho Chung-ping (Yun-Fat Chow), is at the bedside of his comatose wife, clipping her fingernails. This show of tenderness is the only emotion manifested by the character in the entire film, and it soon becomes evident that To’s great star is either too tired or bored to turn in a performance, and one can’t really blame him. Ho is a thankless role. The chairman owes his position to his wife’s family fortune, but far from a faithful husband, he’s carried on a twenty-year affair with his CEO, Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang), who is now desperate to hold onto her status in the face of her lover’s waning affections. To complicate matters, Ho has hired his Harvard MBA daughter Kat (charming ingénue Lang Yueting) for a plum entry-level job but stipulates that she keep her identity secret lest he be accused of nepotism.

But enough of the plot. Although Office is a musical, the less said about the vaguely Brechtian score the better. What makes the film dazzling to watch is the combination of To’s camera movement, Yun Ng’s choreography (the office workers’ routines suggest Busby Berkeley combined with Maoist Red Army film musicals, which, ideologically speaking, is precisely the point of the entire enterprise), and, the biggest surprise, William Chang’s production design. Celebrated for his sensuous, tactile sets for Wong Kar-wai, Chang has created a steely, spikey opposite. The multilevel Jones & Sunn Tower looks as if it is made entirely of oversize pick-up sticks. The double metaphor: The new Chinese capitalism is anything but solid, and its secrets and lies take place in plain sight of everyone on the take and also those left out in the cold. It’s nice that the set has meaning as well as style. What counts however, is that when the moving camera sets those struts and fluorescent sticks awhirl, the pleasure is purely cinematic, and 3-D seals the deal.

Amy Taubin

Johnnie To’s Office 3D plays March 25–31 at Metrograph in New York.