‘Office’ (‘O Pi-seu’): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Workplace blues wrought large and crimson red.

Korean screenwriter Hong Won-chan’s directorial debut stars Snowpiercer star Ko A-sung as a young sales executive caught up in a murderous intrigue in the office

Having previously penned scripts infested with corrupted cops (The Chaser) roaming around dark alleys and murderous mobsters (The Yellow Sea) battling it out in shantytowns, Hong Won-chan has seemingly shifted his social milieu with his self-explanatory titled directorial debut. But the clean and ordered spaces in Office offers only a different look of twisted lives in the modern city, revealing how these rooms with suits and stilettos could be just as horrifyingly a stage on which crumbling morals manifest themselves.

Admittedly, the film’s premise of workplace bloodshed is hardly as big a shock now as it would have been a decade ago, when killing sprees unleashed by disgruntled employees were less graphically and widely reported. One way to go, of course, is to aestheticize the alienating aspects of ordinary life: Hong’s eye in capturing (and heightening) the oppressive and potentially maddening banalities of an urban, white-collar existence has helped make up his as yet flawed mastery of the less-is-more visual language of gripping Asian horror cinema.

Sporting a wide range of objects and comments hinting at the harsh realities on the ground in Seoul – a glimpse of suicide hotspot Mapo Bridge, for example, or conversations peppered with remarks gauging people’s social standing in terms of their postcode – Office should be topical and cathartic enough to chalk up a better-than-moderate office at home in South Korea. Its international premiere as a Midnight Screening at Cannes, meanwhile, might help its reps, 9ers Entertainment, in playing up the film’s possibilities as a niche serial-killer release beyond its domestic market.

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The film’s tagline on the Croisette said it all: Office is about a man who “comes back to work after killing his family.” The person in question is Kim Byung-guk (Bae Seong-woo, Confession of Murder), a sales executive whose murderous act has seemingly whipped up much anxiety among his superiors and colleagues. When questioned by the archetypal cynical cop Choi Jong-hoon (Park Sung-woong, also at Cannes with The Shameless), everyone defends Kim as a dedicated worker, a caring family man and “not a psycho.”

Something is soon shown as amiss in this common hymn sheet when the young intern Lee Mi-rae (Ko A-sung, Snowpiercer) is hauled into the a room by her boss and instructed not to “leak what you saw” about Kim’s life in the office – and it doesn’t take an experienced careerist to speculate what that means, what with supervisor soon seen berating underlings to the point of character assassination, and the office filled with mostly vile, petty-minded gossipmongers.

The barely obscured tension among the workers soon boils over upon the discovery of the body of a dead worker, while surveillance footage soon emerge showing Kim entering the office building after his killing spree. Amidst all this, Lee becomes the center of attention as the employees point to the pair being kindred spirits, a bond built on their vulnerability in the office – he with the family he once had to cater for, and she with her hopes of securing a foothold in the corporate world.

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Meek and subservient, the young newbie soon spirals into increasing distraction with the arrival of a foreign-educated, rich and sociable intern – and thus a rival for that one permanent position on offer. But she’s not the only confronting pressure from around and above: the detective Choi, meanwhile, is ordered not to dig too deep in the investigation so as to keep the multinational corporation from outside glare of the media.

By deploying all these small details into the narrative, Hong has laid bare – especially with an eye to international audiences not aware of the capitalistic nuances of South Korea – of the many aspects of power in play. Just as its non-descript title suggests, Office offers blandness as horror through competent work from DP Park Yong-soo and production designer Shin Yu-jin. There are spine-tingling moments of eerie ambience, however, thanks to splurts of eerie sound design by Kim Chang-sub. After watching Office, the sound of relentlessly printing printers might not be that innocuous again.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Midnight Screening)

Production companies: Film Blossom in a Littlebig Pictures presentation

Director: Hong Won-chan

Cast: Ko A-sung, Park Sung-woong, Bae Seong-woo, Kim Eui-sung

Screenwriter-producer: Choi Yun-jin

Director of photography: Park Yong-soo

Production designer: Shin Yu-jin

Costume designer: Shin Ji-young

Editor: Kim Sun-min

Music: Chong Jee-hoon, Ahn So-young

Sound designer: Kim Chang-sub

International sales: 9ers Entertainment

In Korean

No rating; 111 minutes