The Politics of Power and Profit in Johnnie To’s Office



With the Election diptych (2005-2006) and Life Without Principle (2011), To’s latest film is a continuing look at the politics of power and profit in the Hong Kong of the new millennium, from various sectors/perspectives of society. Election and Election 2 look closely at the world of the triads and the cutthroat processes and traditional rituals of electing a new chairman among the elders of a triad, and the concomitant internal power coups involved. Life Without Principle studies the equally cutthroat realm of banking and finance, the stock market, and the by-product pressure of more money – either by earning/taking it or channeling it to select avenues. Like these previous films, Office plainly denotes its premise, space, and/or community with its title. Here, the politics of power and profit manifest themselves in the form of a company that is prepping to go public…and in song, to boot. Though the film sustains the attention with some difficulty, the effect is no less piercing as it presents multi-tiered intrigues, betrayals, and manipulations among the company members, from top executives to new hires and in between, all in the name of business, regional-global expansion, power, and profit. In this way, until the arrival of Election 3, Office rounds out To’s examination of Hong Kong’s glocal capitalism through the lens of the crime and musical genres.

Office rounds out To’s examination of Hong Kong’s glocal capitalism through the lens of the crime and musical genres.

That any big company with ambition can function the way it does is nothing short of a miracle, given the number of egos, desires, and aspirations at work. The same goes for the company in the film, Jones & Sunn. Seen through the eyes of newly hired recruits Kat (Lang Yue-ting) and Xiang (Wang Zi-yi), it is a collectively organized chaos, not unlike a large dysfunctional family. Stressing this family-like unit is the fact that the film is set in a skeletal-like scaffolding of a large corporate office, occupying several stories, which doubles as the setting for characters’ apartments and stands in for both indoor and outdoor spaces. This transparent, multi-purpose set design, like a spider web, reveals all the more the dastardly workings of a company that is not too far removed from triad society negotiations and business – especially if we follow the idea that gangsterism is one side of a coin whose other face is capitalism. Further stressing the unveiling of a company’s practices approach is a mammoth swinging clock that hovers over the office like the sword of Damocles, ever reminding everyone that time = money = time. Thus, people’s lives are regulated by the clock and are therefore not their own. That the massive set doubles as both office and home for the characters underlines this last point.

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Kat and Xiang see the degree to which corporate life is regulated upon entering the Jones & Sunn building: lines form towards the elevators as people spill out from the subway. Once inside, they are breathlessly taken through their expected morning duties (bringing coffee to the higher ups) by two seasoned middle-ranking staff members – in song, no less. Soon after, the company’s bevy of lawyers march into the office in rhythmic unison and everyone bursts into song about the road to going public in 2008, monitored ever so closely by CEO Chang (Sylvia Chang, author of the play Design for Living on which the film is based) and Chairman Ho Chung-ping (Chow Yun-fat).

As the film gets some musical numbers out of the way, it establishes the major plot threads that will interlock or frazzle: newbie ambitions via Kat and Xiang; extracurricular work activities for business and pleasure; interoffice romance/desire; and illegal and/or going-behind-another’s-back dealings. On the one hand, beyond the initial rush of dazzle and song and getting to know this world, the film becomes a bit flat in tone and long-winded. On the other hand, individual scenes/sequences shine: post-work drinking and venting among office employees; entertaining potential Western and Chinese investors in separate rooms, which comically reveal the company executives’ savvy understanding of cultural diversity and cultural capitalism; and the few scenes set in the subway, such as an early sequence in which a young man reading a book on how to get rich draws the increasing attention of those around him, until all eyes are trying to read the book. Stitching song and corporate shenanigans together to constitute a film with all of the seams intentionally showing is perhaps not the exact effect that To was trying to achieve, at least on a dramatic level. Sure, one really gets the sense that everyone is playing his/her own chess match with everyone else to get a leg up in the company, and will make any move necessary to do so; or rather, everyone is involved in one big convoluted power chess match so that some are checkmated in the name of those who are checkmating. To does not disappoint in handling the overwhelming ensemble cast and their choreography of dialogue, song, and occasional dance. Nevertheless, the film lacks the emotional tautness, character depth, and empathy for the characters (regardless of where they may lie in the moral spectrum) that are found in the Election diptych and Life Without Principle.

Office gains some energy when approached within the larger series of studies of new millennial capitalist crookism and practices in Hong Kong begun with the Election films through to Life Without Principle.

Through the characters Lok, Big D, and Jimmy in the Election films and Teresa in Life Without Principle, To simultaneously addresses the cunning pressures of capitalism in distinct social sectors and crafts engaging clinical character studies. In fact, the two go hand in hand in these three films: the clinical way in which To examines these characters has a lot to do with the sociopolitical realms in which they move and how they behave in the face of shifting criteria of power (which oftentimes go beyond their control). In Election, Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) compete in the election for chairman of the Wo Sing triad society to hold the power and profit reins while in Election 2 Jimmy (Louis Koo) reluctantly enters the new chairman election for the sake of doing business in China. In Life Without Principle, Teresa (Denise Ho) feels the numbers crunch in a bank where everyone just wants to make more money – banks, triads, retirees, etc. In order to avoid getting fired, she unscrupulously convinces one client to take on a high-risk fund with the promise of high returns. All of these characters find themselves in a corner partially of their own making and partially due to outside socio-economic/political forces, which To’s etymological eye reveals all too clearly to be governed by uneven money trends.

In Office, Financial Manager Sophie (Tang Wei) alone conveys that similar tautness, empathy, and blurred morality all at once. It is a testament to Tang’s finely tuned performance that we see how she feels the corporate/capitalist pressure throughout her entire body, with her clipped walking, her rigid stance, and staccato movements and way of speaking. Sophie possesses (and is possessed by) a heavy mix of ambition and desperation that is also found in Lok, Big D, and Jimmy in the Election films and Teresa in Life Without Principle. In one moment of ambition-desperation, Lok succumbs to the manic homicide of Big D in Election; Jimmy plots the killing of Lok in the name of business in China in Election 2, and Teresa keeps the $5 million entrusted by another client to herself instead of returning it to his bank account in Life Without Principle. Sophie, too, reveals herself to be capable of dubious action that could sink her: manipulating the company’s books and, by extension, marring the company’s profile. Like Lok and Jimmy, it does sink her in the end. The difference between these four films is that Office does not make Sophie its pivotal central character. She is one among many in the gamut of the office community. Granted, the Election films and Life Without Principle also present multiple perspectives and plot threads. At the same time, holding together this principle of simultaneity is their unwitting convergence against one particular character followed through from beginning to end, and whose actions are a symptom of both the necessity of playing the rules of the money game and the stone cold shoulder of business and the capitalist system when the rules suddenly alter. In the process, these characters express agitated resilience and a dark side of humanity, which makes them lose sight of the very cutthroat world that compelled them to act out that way in the first place. Office instead focuses on its office community’s interlocking gears and misguidedly puts too much attention on the blander characters, beginning with Kat and Xiang.

Uncannily, in Election 2 and Office, the transfer of power is kept in the family, which often translates as the maintenance of tradition regardless of morality, feeling or community. Kat turns out to be Chairman Ho’s daughter to whom a new part of Jones & Sunn is given to manage, and Jimmy’s unborn son and family line are Wo Sing’s future chairmen. All in the name of stable business and economic prosperity.

By itself and compared to the three aforementioned films, though no less stinging in its revelation of the politics of power and profit, Office is rather inert in its narrative structure and emotional force. But Office gains some energy when approached within the larger series of studies of new millennial capitalist crookism and practices in Hong Kong begun with the Election films through to Life Without Principle.


About Author

Film lecturer at CSULB. Transnational, multilingual, migratory cinephilia.