Director: Hong Won-Chan
Writer: Choi Yoon-Jin, Hong Won-Chan
Producer: Lee Sung-Jin, Choi Yoon-Jin
Cast: Ko Ah-Sung, Park Sung-Woong, Bae Sung-Woo, Kim Eui-Sung, Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung, Lee Chae-Eun, Son Soo-Hyun, Park Jung-Min, Oh Dae-Hwan
Running Time: 111 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The English language poster created for Office when it was invited to Cannes came with the slogan – ‘He murdered his family, and then came back to work.’ The line effectively sets up expectations for a straight forward worker-pushed-over-the-edge slasher movie, and had it been directed by anyone other than Hong Won-chan, there’s little doubt that’s what it would have been. Won-chan is the man behind the screenplays for the likes of The Chaser, The Yellow Sea, and Confession of Murder though, and if those productions prove anything, it’s that he’s not a writer to create a straightforward tale of A to B.
It’s surprising then, that for his directorial debut he made the decision to direct not from his own script, but from a screenplay by Choi Yoon-jin. Won-chan stated himself in an interview that, while elements of the script appealed to him, it was far too much of a straight forward horror movie for his own tastes, so decided to turn it down. Thankfully the producer was on his side, and gave Won-chan free reign to rewrite it into a story he’d be happy to tell. The end result of this decision makes Office a difficult beast to categorize, and that’s not a bad thing at all. One part slasher movie, one part psychological horror, one part police procedural, one part office politics thriller, somehow all of these elements come together to deliver a gripping 110 minute debut feature.
Proceedings begin as we follow a solemn looking salary man, played by Bae Seong-woo, back home from his late finish in the office. Upon arriving home to his wife, mother, and handicapped son, after quietly eating dinner he takes a hammer out of the drawer, and proceeds to beat them to death with it. It’s a brutal scene, and one which is made more effective in the way it inter-splices images of the surrounding identical tower blocks between the blood splattered thrusts of the hammer. Soon a police investigation is underway at the office he worked at, led by a detective played by Park Seong-woong (who also featured in the excellent The Shameless, released the same year), who takes a particular interest in the young intern, played by Ko Ah-seong.
Ah-seong will most likely be recognizable to audiences for her iconic roles in two of Bong Joon-ho’s most well-known movies. She played the girl who is whisked away by the monster in 2006’s The Host, and would also re-team with Song Kang-ho for Joon-ho’s English language debut with 2013’s Snowpiercer. With Office her role as a nervous, socially awkward intern could well be considered her most mature to date. Despite being largely treated like a slave by her seniors, it’s revealed that her relationship with Seong-woo was a friendly one. However the real question is, does she know more about why he acted the way he did, and more importantly, does she know where he is?
Although largely confined to a single location – the office floor – the cinematography of Park Yong-soo successfully imbues the confined spaces with an effective level of atmosphere. Aspects like the cubicle walls of the workers, the stairwell, and even the bathroom are all lensed in such a way that, when they change from corporate surroundings that we take for granted, to areas in which death could be just around the corner, the difference in tension is palpable. It’s fair to say that if you’re someone who’s usually the last to leave your own office at night, this movie may make you think twice about being the last person to clock off.
One of the biggest strengths of Office though is not just the sense of impending doom that it conveys so well, but just as much it’s how the ensemble cast interact with each other. The office dynamics between each of the employees rank up just as much tension as the murderous intent of their hammer wielding colleague. There’s a battle of the sexes for who will get a promotion between two supervisors, an office romance between another pair, a boss who treats everyone with such a level of disdain it’s a shock he still has any staff, and most significantly, the introduction of a new intern. As a surrogate for the audience, Ah-seong is pulled back and forth between all of them, while the whole time trying to deal with her biggest concern of if and when she’ll be made permanent.
A significant differentiator that sets Office apart from being just a standard slasher flick is the psychological element that’s introduced into the script, most likely thanks to Won-chan’s input. A number of the office workers become paranoid that their former colleague is after them, which leads to a number of scenes in which the reality of what’s being witnessed is questionable. Is Seong-woo really looking to kill off those he felt did him wrong, or is it just the imagination of those that have been left behind?
Despite the other genres that have been brought in to make Office what it is, thankfully Won-chan doesn’t betray the fact that in its original form, most likely it would have made for an entertaining B-movie slasher, and the runtime is interspersed with some suitably bloody moments. One particular scene that takes place in the office bathroom succeeds at being both nail bitingly tense, and delivering a satisfyingly bloody payoff. For anyone that’s been in a situation where they wish they could make one of their co-workers just disappear, Office should provide a suitably healthy dose of wish fulfillment.
While the strained relationships between the employees of the company may seem somewhat far-fetched for some viewers, for many Koreans the scenarios presented in Office present a very real picture of the daily workplace. In a country which has the longest working hours in the world, and is ridiculously competitive while still being bound by the Confucian principles of those who are eldest should get promoted first, the Korean salary man has many a reason to be suffering from high stress levels. The way in which Office mixes the everyday interactions of working life, with the danger of knowing a killer could potentially be nearby, serves to provide an almost constant underlying tension to the events unfolding onscreen.
If Office has any criticism that could be leveled against it, then it’s the soundtrack. Made up of a kind of static like interference, the repetitive nature of the sound marks it as the productions weakest link. While effective at first, the lack of variety in its tone means that in the later parts of the movie, the initial unsettling impact that it had has entirely dissipated. However this is a small gripe in what’s overall a welcome addition to a genre that’s often overlooked, or treated as throwaway cinema fodder. Korea has made a successful habit of merging different genres together in the past, often those which seem completely at odds with each other, and seeing a horror movie merged with elements of psychological thriller and workplace politics proves to be a compelling viewing experience.
As a debut Office is remarkably assured and confident in its execution, and hopefully will result in Won-chan deciding to take on one of his own scripts for his next feature. It also can’t be denied that, in a genre that often has the female playing the hapless victim, it’s refreshing to see a production which gives us a female protagonist that, by the closing credits, turns out to be as far from being a simple damsel in distress as you can imagine. If you’re looking for a horror movie that delivers more than just blood splattered thrills, then a trip to the Office comes strongly recommended.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10