Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To has long been adding balletic touches to both his gunslinging action movies and his wild romantic comedies, which made the prospect of his first outright musical—in 3D, no less—one of the most exciting selections in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. But even hardcore fans could scarcely anticipate what a major departure Office is for the director. To arranges the film around a gigantic, blacked-out set filled with the skeletal outlines of consumerist life: Subways constructed of nothing more than winding, orange pipes carry workers to a corporate office of endless computer desks encased in glass. On the building’s bottom floor, the work environment opens imperceptibly into a department store, further limiting the parameters of the film’s world and presenting a closed ecosystem of money that resembles Playtime by way of Dogville.
A viewer could spend much of the film simply marveling at To’s use of blocking, not merely for the low-level workers who spend the film’s “dance” routines largely scuttling between tasks and passing gossip between departments, but also in the manner that each frame plays with the thicket of long, fluorescent tubes that light the office. Some shots arrange these lights like comic-book action lines, leading to a vanishing point in a false horizon, while others stack them into thick paint strokes of light. With careful angles, To clarifies the set not as a threadbare evocation, but an impossible object, a two-dimensional space made into an Escherian puzzle from a different perspective. And while the 3D itself isn’t revelatory, the director does use it to make objects pop enough from the flattened, black background to impart some of the vastness the set is meant to suggest.
A similar approach defines the film’s character arcs, which initially seem a freeform jumble until they’re re-oriented to show a connective web of aspiration. At the bottom are new hires Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and boss’s daughter Kat (Lang Yueting), who share vivacious, untapped potential, but diverge in their willingness to cross moral lines in service of ambition. Their counterparts at the top are the increasingly jaded CEO Chang (Sylvia Chang, also co-writer and producer) and the forever-plotting Chairman Ho (Chow Yun Fat). Chow appears sporadically in the film, his imposing presence and sealed-off emotions hinting that the only thing that’s ever trickled down from himself to his employees is his ruthless lack of ethics.
Those expecting one of To’s manic comedies will instead be met with arguably his most dour drama. When romance blossoms between characters, the film attributes their attraction to mere proximity and the simple fact that work now constitutes the bulk of one’s social life. And if work provides the circumstances of relationships, it also dictates their behavioral patterns. Chang and Ho long ago let their affair lapse into lovelessness, while VP David (Eason Chan) cruelly manipulates the affections of co-worker Sophie (Tang Wei) just so someone will fudge the numbers. Office depicts a world in which business loyalty and ethics inform personal ones, not the other way around. To mines this grim irony for all its worth in the Brechtian musical numbers, one of which stages Lee at home dreaming up his bright future of innovation and profit as the lights fade and reveal, just outside his window, a homeless man shuffling past with a giant mound of trash. Disturbingly, the film’s only uplifting moment comes in a café after hours, when workers spontaneously break into song about their own wage slavery. “Are you fine with being a corporate slave,” they ask in the chorus, smiling as the sing in concession to their complicity in their own misery.
The bridged arcs of Office have nothing on those of 11 Minutes though. The latest film from Jerzy Skolimowski is a network narrative that constantly doubles back onto the shared time and space occupied by a group of characters each embroiled in their own personal dramas. The most recurring of these narrative tendrils belongs to a wannabe actress (Paulina Chapko) summoned to the hotel room of an American filmmaker (Richard Dormer) who telegraphs his true intentions from the first lecherous grin. (“Call me Dick,” he adds, in case he wasn’t being obvious enough.) Chasing after the actress is her new husband (Wojciech Mecwaldowski), who knows what’s about to happen and wishes to extract his wife from the situation. Their arc centers the action at the hotel, around which one can find a charming hot dog vendor (Andrzej Chyra) with a heavily hinted history of pedophilia and probation, a newly single gutter-punk (Ifi Ude), and a drug courier (Dawid Ogrodnik) who flits between deliveries great and small in between sleeping with a married woman.
Skolimowski connects these disparate threads by any means possible, but the true delights of the film lie in the formal showcase on display throughout. DP Mikolaj Lebkowski moves the camera in gliding arcs that constantly shift classical compositions to reveal more and more information, as when a curve around Dormer’s ritzy suite, all plush-white upholstery, reveals a personal camera aimed directly at them. Embedded within such carefully ordered style is an experimental streak, and the film regularly heads off into such whimsical detours as a slow-motion shot of a giant bubble floating in the air before bursting, the film slowed down so much you can watch the way it pops at one end and rolls back into oblivion, leaving a faint mist in the air as the only evidence it ever existed. There are also POV shots from the perspective of a dog, with the camera placed low to the ground and ambling with the lens trained on grass and pavement until a noise makes the dog look up.
Most germane to the film’s vague thematic thrust are the images culled from smartphone cameras and CCTV. A montage of such footage opens the film, and it belatedly clarifies the scattered plot of the film as a broad reaction to a culture in which everything is documented. In effect, Skolimowski skewers network narrative self-seriousness with a story that resolves around deliberate nonsense and giddy nihilism even as it adds an explicitly political angle that pablum like Babel ignores. 11 Minutes captures numerous people on a collision course, but as the finale proves, even mass surveillance cannot fully predict, much less prevent, catastrophe.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—20.