Written and directed by Ivy Ho, best known for her sensitive story in Comrades, Almost a Love Story, I felt that Claustrophobia showed similar expertise in its treatment of the mundane and often rote life of office workers caught up in the day to day drudgery of deadlines and uncertainties in this era of mergers and acquisitions. Lensed by cinematographer Mark Lee, this is beautifully filmed and brings out the often cramped spaces that the characters find themselves in, figuratively as well.
The film opens with a long 20 minute scene in a car as it goes around Hong Kong, where the department manager Tom (Ekin Cheng) sends his team of 4 home after a late night in the office. And it is here in this tiny space of a car cabin that you can read plenty of office colleague dynamics that any working adult would immediately identify with. Veteran Felix Lok as Karl has some of the best lines as the individual who is a "know it all" given his seniority amongst the team, and Karena Lam's Pearl often has something troubling that maintains hidden beneath her calm exterior. John and Jewel round up the group as the youngest, most passionate and of course, most impetuous amongst the group, being fuel for and to propagate stories from the grapevine.
Unravelling itself backwards, the narrative teases with short succinct scenes from gossips to suspicion of hanky panky, but never to show its hand fully. Rationale for such scenes, and character behaviour at current point in time do get touched upon in later parts, which is chronologically earlier. Much is still left unsaid though as the continuity in reverse order do not get embroiled in the nitty gritties, but provides the canvas and the frame on which you can draw your own conclusions from.
There are no big sequences per say, as this is a powerful conversational movie. Attention is to be paid to the candid and genuinely impactive dialogue, especially when you discover hidden meanings and sarcasms when lines are read in-between. There is much identifiable dialogue for anyone who has worked a desk job before, as well as with the scenes of quirks from working in close proximity cubicles in the office. You'll probably be left in awe as if you're seeing a snapshot of an office worker's life through a two-way mirror, with knowledge of hindsight, as the movie captures the concerns of the working class in such a deceptively simple manner.
If you're led to believe that Ekin Cheng's Tom and Karena Lam's Pearl would amount to something, then you might just have to leave it to your imagination to wander a bit, since it's never explicit shown or addressed on screen. Rather, the notion of office romance with workers dating co-workers just serves as a fleeting background with both sides of the equation provided, such as how it affects workers productivity, or how it actually helps to increase morale of the person(s) involved.
Minor characters do pepper the landscape as well, in the form of Eric Tsang as Dr Chiu, whom I thought had some of the more interesting lines with Karena Lam as they share a wonderfully poignant scene with regards to love lost, and Andy Hui who guests stars as a cab driver. Well acted despite having the characters restraining themselves to knowing glances and something that is more than meets the eye, Claustrophobia would easily be amongst my favourites from the festival, and is highly recommended!
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