[In recent years, people in film study put forward a statement of ‘cinema is dead’ for they argue that the institution of cinema has been gradually altered by another form of film producing and consuming: digital filming and viewing. Under this circumstance, the statement ‘cinema is dead’ is not a declaration of the end of moving image but actually suggests other ways of producing and perceiving images.]
Johnnie To, a renowned Hong Kong director famous for his film noirs and gangster movies, recently produces a musical melodrama Office (2015), an adaptation from Sylvia Chang’s hit play Design for Living (2008). Although To never produced any musical before, people find no surprise that he would shoot a melodrama set in a modern office, a genre that is not unfamiliar in To’s filmography: Needing You…(2000), casted with Hong Kong pop stars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, was a huge success to earn To (and Wai Kar-fai as well) a good name of producing comedic melodrama. A decade later, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) and its sequel in 2014 swept the box office both in Hong Kong and mainland China.
Although he had assisted to and learnt film shooting from one of the masters of Chinese musical film Wong Tin-lam (the director of The Wild, Wild Rose ) in his early career, musical elements is quite unusual in To’s career. In Office, To works closely with William Chang Suk-ping for the set design, which recall what Lars von Trier has done in Dogville (2003) – a highly theatrical presentation. The huge Steampunk-ish clock positioned at the center of office adds another level of theatrical and surrealist effect to the film. This clock reminds the audience other clocks that have appeared in film since the very early time of cinema, especially the clock in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) that symbolizes modernity and the dehumanization in modern, capitalist society. The clerks working under the huge clock reintroduce the mechanical bodies of factory workers in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1937) in the new context – clerks are compelled to work according to the rhythm of the technologized world. The alienation witnessed in Office also reminds us another classic film about modern working places: Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).
By all the allusions, Office can be regarded as a cinephile film – a film for cinephilia.
In recent years, people in film study put forward a statement of ‘cinema is dead’ for they argue that the institution of cinema has been gradually altered by another form of film producing and consuming: digital filming and viewing. Under this circumstance, the statement ‘cinema is dead’ is not a declaration of the end of moving image but actually suggests other ways of producing and perceiving images. The study of cinephilia then becomes a new focus of film scholarship. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (2010) is a recent example that shows an interest of investigating the changing way of perceiving images. Thanks to the digital technology, nowadays viewers can rediscover and recirculate film classics while are able to identify filmmakers’ recycling of older images, just like what has happened in To’s Office.
However, if mainland Chinese is the target audience of the film, I am wondering if the cinephilic pleasure cinephilia enjoys in the film is also the pleasure of mainland China spectators. The box office of Office actually tells the opposite. While the top box office of this year (up till now) in mainland China receives more than 2400 million (Raman Hui Shing-Ngai’s Monster Hunt), Office can only able to receive less than 50 million. Of course, one may also argue that the poor box office is a result of the film generic form – musical film – now being used. In the history of Chinese-language cinema, musical films, especially those produced by Shaw Brothers, only finds theirs golden era in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, it is not as influential as before. The last musicals that did fairly ‘good’ was Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Perhaps Love (2005), receiving around 30 million. But it is no comparison to another Chan’s co-production The Warlords (2007), which enjoyed 200 million return. With this track record, the thwart in Office’s box office is expected by the film industry, and I think, by Johnnie To himself as well.