“Office” – 2015 New York Korean Film Festival Review

Hong Won-chan, as a collaborator on the screenplays for Na Hong-jin’s stylishly violent thrillers “The Chaser” and “The Yellow Sea,” has delved into the worlds of cops, gangsters, and serial killers. With the thriller/horror “Office,” Hong’s debut feature as director, he retains the cops and serial killers, but adds a new element: a wicked satire on office politics and corporate hierarchies. Here, Hong finds that nondescript office interiors are places conducive to as much (literal) backstabbing and cutthroat behavior as streets and back alleyways. And while combining this satire with slasher-movie thrills can create a sometimes unstable mixture, “Office” is a witty, perceptive and handsomely mounted film that proves Hong to be a filmmaker of considerable promise.

At the outset, Byung-guk (Bae Seong-woo), a sales manager at food and beverage company Cheil, goes home after a typically long day at the office. This is a mundane sort of thing, except that the dead-eyed expression on Byung-guk’s face, as he rides the train and makes his way to his home where his wife and son await, indicates that something is seriously amiss. This unnerving feeling is soon horribly confirmed when Byung-guk, without warning, picks up a hammer and murders his wife and son. Rather than indulging in graphic details, this arresting opening scene elegantly employs a Hitchcockian editing strategy, cutting between shots of the hammer coming down and blood splashing on the walls.

The next day, Mi-rae (Ko Ah-sung), a young intern at Cheil, running late, rushes into work. Along with her colleagues, she learns about the murder committed by Byung-guk, who apparently is still at large. Choi Jung-hoon (Park Sung-woong), a police detective, is now at the office, questioning all the employees who worked with Byung-guk. The wanted killer’s co-workers all sing his praises, staunchly defending Byung-guk as a hard worker incapable of such an act, and in the words of one of them, definitely “not a psycho.”

Detective Choi eventually comes around to questioning Mi-rae, even though the other employees try to discourage her from doing so. Choi suspects there’s a cover-up going on, and indeed, one of Mi-rae’s superiors pulls her aside, warning her not to divulge to the detective anything she might have seen and heard. When told to be mindful of her status in the office, and not to say anything that will put the company in a bad light, Mi-rae meekly assents.

When Choi questions her, Mi-rae initially sticks to her bosses’ orders, but later lets it slip that Byung-guk had been under considerable stress at work, and that out of all the others in the office, he was the one that showed her genuine kindness. Their mutual feelings of anxiety and isolation caused them to forge a bond that we glean more details of through flashbacks, as well as the more intense later passages of the film.

Though the film begins with Byung-guk’s murderous act, and is built around the mystery of his whereabouts, it is Mi-rae who emerges as the central character, and mostly through whose eyes we witness the insane pressures that are bought to bear on the workers at the company. The main source of this pressure is the sales department director Kim (Kim Eui-sung), whose daily meetings consist mostly of him berating, cursing at and insulting his underlings. An early scene has one of Kim’s tirades concerning lackluster sales results punctuated by the loud sounds of thunder.

Security video footage from the time of the murder shows that Byung-guk returned to the office after murdering his family, and also shows that he never left the building. Eventually, the bodies of murdered co-workers begin appearing. What elevates “Office” well above its crowded genre is the way that this situation is the occasion for as much dark humor as more typical scares and shocks. The increasing body count serves to intensify the brutal gossip and jockeying for power that was a prominent feature of life in the office well before one of them started flipping out and killing people.

Through it all, Mi-rae struggles to maintain her position, working tirelessly, and often after hours, to get through her internship and obtain the one permanent position on offer. Her hard work and dedication, rather than being rewarded and appreciated, is criticized and scorned by co-workers who regard her as unseemly in her desperation. Her status is further threatened with the arrival of a new intern hire who’s richer, foreign-educated, and is considered prettier and more congenial. Mi-rae’s increasing fear at losing everything she’s worked so hard to achieve connects her with the elusive Byung-guk, and it is this melding of personalities that fuels the violent denouement.

Hong, with crucial assists from cinematographer Park Yong-soo, production designer Shin Yu-jin, and sound designer Kim Chang-sub, finds thrilling ways to locate the sinister in the mundane. The claustrophobic interiors of the office, where most of the action takes place, is invested with a permeating sense of menace, where such seemingly innocuous sounds as someone typing on a keyboard or running a printer are invested with chilling tension.

But it’s the performances that truly make “Office” ultimately more than the sum of its parts. Even when Choi Yun-jin’s screenplay is less than consistent in its tone or in tying up loose narrative threads – or veers from its pitched satire toward more conventional thriller elements – the players help provide the glue that makes it all hang together.

Ko Ah-sung, best known for her work in the ensembles of Bong Joon-ho’s big-budget successes “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” delivers a fine performance in a leading role. As the nervous, tightly-wound Mi-rae, she is never less than riveting in portraying the extreme psychological pressures put to bear on her character, her large expressive eyes conveying many intricacies of emotion. Bae Seong-woo is also very good as Byung-guk, making his character appropriately unnerving and more than a little sympathetic despite having less screen time. The rest of the cast also help to vividly convey the vicious, murderous nature of this “Office,” a place of horrors that belies the anonymity of its generic title.

“Office” screens on November 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Museum of the Moving Image as the opening night film of the New York Korean Film Festival. Director Hong Won-chan and actress Ko Ah-sung will appear in person. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the museum’s website.