Office politics played with song and dance

Chow Yun Fat and Sylvia Chang (both above) play company chiefs in Office, while Robert De Niro is an intern working for Anne Hathaway in The Intern.
Chow Yun Fat and Sylvia Chang (both above) play company chiefs in Office, while Robert De Niro is an intern working for Anne Hathaway in The Intern.PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE PICTURES, WARNER BROS
Chow Yun Fat and Sylvia Chang play company chiefs in Office, while Robert De Niro is an intern working for Anne Hathaway (both above) in The Intern.
Chow Yun Fat and Sylvia Chang play company chiefs in Office, while Robert De Niro is an intern working for Anne Hathaway (both above) in The Intern.

REVIEW / MUSICAL DRAMA

OFFICE (PG)

119 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ ****

The story: The idealistic Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi) and woman of mystery Qiqi (Lang Yueting) join a major company, Jones & Sunn, as it prepares to go public. The office is a place of conflicting interests and complicated relationships and the key players include dragon lady chief executive officer Zhang Wei (Sylvia Chang), smooth-talking executive David (Eason Chan) and dedicated worker Sophie (Tang Wei). Meanwhile, chairman He Zhongping (Chow Yun Fat) keeps a watchful eye in the background. The script was adapted by Chang from the 2009 stage play Design For Living, which she co-wrote.

REVIEW / COMEDY DRAMA

THE INTERN (PG13)

121 minutes/Opens tomorrow/ ** 1/2

The story: Jules (Anne Hathaway) is the founder and chief executive officer of fashion e-retailer About The Fit. The go-getter is coping with a rapidly growing company and juggling that with a husband and young daughter at home. She finds unexpected help from old-timer Ben (Robert De Niro), who is part of an inaugural senior internship programme.

A workplace musical is certainly something you do not see every day.

And kudos to versatile director Johnnie To and writer-actress Sylvia Chang for delivering a far from workmanlike Office.

Chang has streamlined the story from the original play, made some choice changes to the relationships among the characters and done away with the overly melodramatic ending. Li Xiang is still the obviously named neophyte - his moniker means "ideals" - and he is the audience's entry into this world of complex interests.

As he seeks to survive in this competitive battlefield, will he eventually be corrupted as well? Will he follow in the footsteps of the older, disillusioned David?

David is a cautionary tale of reckless ambition and singer Eason Chan conveys both his slick charm and increasing desperation. When he makes use of Sophie to cover up for him, the tragedy is that he does so despite feeling something for her.

Perhaps Li will triumph at the workplace as Zhang Wei appears to have done by weighing every calculated move carefully. But she has paid a high price by putting her career ahead of everything else and the character portrayed by Chang is by turns steely and vulnerable.

Or maybe Li is merely a pawn who will ultimately be destroyed.

It is a bleak portrait that is leavened by the big song and dance numbers written by veterans such as singer-songwriter Lo Ta-yu and master lyricist Lin Xi.

The film is also visually appealing as the sets have been inspired by the theatrical origins of the production and one can well imagine the skeletal outlines of the office building and the commuter train being used on stage.

The Intern is also a movie set in the workplace, but it takes a completely different approach.

It sounds at first like a high- concept flick that is strictly for laughs: Robert De Niro, better known for his tough-guy persona, plays a senior citizen intern. Thankfully, it is more substantive than the similarly named The Internship (2013), in which Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson clowned about at Google.

But while it surfaces, among other things, the challenges women face at the workplace, writer- director Nancy Meyers handles everything with such a light touch that the drama ultimately feels more like a fantasy.

So it is up to the likeable cast to draw viewers into the film.

For once, De Niro has zero edge to him. Even in comedies such as Meet The Parents (2000), he played characters with a sense of menace. Here, he is all cuddly like a teddy bear you want to squeeze. He is the perfect senior citizen intern - has a wealth of experience, is good with people, can be always be counted on and has absolutely no problems with much younger people in authority. Every office should have one.

Anne Hathaway - how time flies - has gone from playing the newbie in The Devil Wears Prada (2006) to sitting on the other side of the table as the boss.

She is wrestling with guilt over juggling work and home, and wondering if she can have it all.

Too bad the resolution is so pat and tidy.

For all its stagey artificiality, Office is a far more gripping, if deeply cynical, portrayal of corporate life. And it works.

See: De Niro gets funnier with age

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2015, with the headline 'Office politics played with song and dance'. Print Edition | Subscribe