Office (O piseu)

Korea (2015) Dir. Hong Won-Chan

When David Brent told his staff at Wernham Hogg “You will never work in a place like this again. It’s brilliant. Fact” this may have been his usual braggadocio, but compared to the office in this Korean thriller, there is an irrefutable truth in Brent’s boast.

The office in question is part of a company called Cheil, run by the demanding Director Kim Sang-Gyu (Kim Eui-Sung) who expects his sales staff to work above and beyond just make the figures look good. Section Chief Kim Byeong-Gook (Bae Sung-Woo), seems to have had enough of this unjust pressure and returns home one night in a bad mood.

When harried intern Lee Mi-Rye (Ko Ah-Sung) arrives late the next morning she is shocked to see Detective Choi Jong-Hoon (Park Sung-Woong) in the office, investigating the brutal murder of Kim’s family the night before. Mi-Rye is even more alarmed to learn that Kim committed this murder – who, it, has returned to work with plans to add to the body count.

This might be Hong Won-Chan’s directorial debut but as a screenwriter he has form in the gory thriller stakes, penning renowned modern gems as The Chaser, The Yellow Sea and Confession Of Murder. So, discovering Office is not a drama set around paperclips, spreadsheets and illicit affairs but a slow burning and taught chiller with plenty of spilled claret should be no surprise.

Set mostly in – but not limited to – the singular location of the Cheil building, there is an immediate sense of claustrophobia established among this bustling workplace where the equally ambitious staff sit in close proximity to one another, separated only by a flimsy partition, trying to get ahead on the corporate ladder.

It’s a familiar scene and one which Hong soon subverts with the backstabbing being perpetrated from the front, but what is he saying with this film? The underlying theme of cracking under the pressure of a demanding job seems the most obvious issue being pondered here but does the extreme violence portrayed in this film undermine that?

I don’t know if there have been any such real incidents in Korea but I do know that Asian office hours are longer than in the west, and staff are expected to sacrifice everything for their jobs – bosses excluded of course. Wong appears to be standing up for the white-collar worker with this film, co-written with the film’s producer Choi Yoon-Jin, putting forward a convincing, if extreme, case in favour of a more reasonable work environment.

The film opens with Kim wearily trudging home to his unsuspecting and unconcerned family before the post-dinner slaughter. For someone with the reputation of being mild-mannered and reserved, as well as caring deeply for his lame son, to commit such a crime is unfathomable but a few minutes in the offices of Cheil and suddenly it doesn’t such mystery after all.

Cheil’s Director Kim is the despotic alpha-male boss, vociferously appalled when his staff don’t work on a Sunday when they should be doing more important things like chasing sales. He also displays signs of sexism when chastising assistant manager Hong Ji-Soon (Ryoo Hyoun-Kyoung) for basically taking the same short cuts Kim did in his work, later bemoaning the idea of promoting this “useless arrogant bitch”.

As an intern, Mi-Rye is at the bottom of the ladder still waiting to be accepted full time but she is optimistic it is happening soon, although her snooty co-workers are less than enthused. The arrival of another intern, the overqualified, privileged Shin Da-Mi (Son Soo-Hyun) provides immediate competition on all fronts, putting further pressure on Mi-Rye.

There is that word again – pressure. It is everywhere but not everyone cracks the same way Kim did, or as Mi-Rye looks set to do. When the murders happen Director Kim is told by his superiors to protect the company name, naturally as such a scandal will affect their profits and their reputation. Detective Choi is also forced off the case by his superiors for the same reason.

Hong doesn’t bother with trying to insert any levity into the script to suggest this is a satire, although some may find the overall concept of bloody carnage in the corporate world a bit hard to take seriously. There are a few moments of deliberate jump scares to disarm the viewer for when the true horror reveals itself through the psychological impact of Kim’s actions and ominous presence in the workplace.

Anyone familiar with Asian and Korea’s darker films will know how they can easily slip into a world of bloody chaos and unsettling brutality, suffused with an ambiguity as to whether it is aware of what it is depicting and why. What strengthens this chilling sense of unbridled gruesome glee is the utterly committed performances from the cast, everyone working less to make us believe as much as make themselves believe.

Deserving the most praise is Ko Ah-Sung as Mi-Rye, who will be familiar to most as the young girl in The Host and more recently in Snowpiercer. Despite her babyface looks and playing a junior character here, this is a superbly nuanced role. While she spends the first half as the wide eyed lackey trying to get noticed the second half is where Ko really shines, her unique facial features serving well in reflecting Mi-Rye’s change in attitude.

For his first time in the director’s chair, Wong delivers a strong offering, if a little by-the-numbers in places, which shows a growth in confidence and ideas in the second half both visually and in terms of mood building. The script has a few too many threads that leaves some gaps in the narrative, which is something he’ll learn in time.

If you can steel yourself to avoid being judgemental about certain elements of the plot, Office will suitably satiate any twinges you may have for a darkly visceral slice of Korean brutality. Just don’t watch it after working late….