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Office (2015/South Korea)
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by Jay Seaver

"Corporate life is murder."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I don't know if "Office" ever really gets back around to the question that kicks it off in a definitive way, or if where it winds up going instead is really as fascinating as the filmmakers would have us think. Its corporate pressure-cooker environment certainly does a nice job of building into a potentially cutthroat situation.

That initial hook has Kim Byung-guk (Bae Sung-woo), a manager at the Cheil Company in Seoul, getting a drink after work, heading home, passing a completely normal evening with his family, and then viciously killing them with a hammer. The next day, intern Lee Mirae (Ko A-Sung) arrives at the same office to find a detective (Park Sung-woong) managing the case and her bosses telling her that the police don't need to know anything that might just embarrass the company. On top of this, a new intern (Son Soo-hyun) is being brought in, and the police have found surveillance footage that suggests Byung-guk returned to the office building after the murders and hasn't been seen to leave yet.

Cheil won't soon be found on any "great places to work" lists; it's cliquy and Director Kim Sang-gyu (Kim Eui-sung) seems to be the type that considers bullying and leadership to be one and the same. It's the sort of office where workplace stress leading to serial murder - and the culture valuing company loyalty and difficulty of landing a new job means that having a murderer lurking in the shadows may not quite be enough to finally quit. While writer Choi Yun-jin sets that up, director Hong Won-chan and crew make sure that the corporate chill appears on-screen, with a tight cube farm that tucks everybody away until they need to show up but does't actually afford any privacy, complemented by an eerie silence that gets drowned out when there's a storm outside. It's corporate hell, with Mirae not just exploited as the young girl desperate to move up from her humble origins, but not even able to look away from the people doing so.

Mirae rapidly becomes the center of the movie, and Ko A-sung (best known abroad for Snowpiercer) is great in that role, from the desperation she shows trying to get to work on time despite an uncooperative public transit system to the way she seems to die inside a little bit as people treat her like she's not there. Flashbacks and other moments let her give a glimpse of Mirae as not totally crushed, and when the blood starts to fly, she has plenty of the right sort of presence.

She's clearly the star, although there's a fine ensemble around her, with Bae Sung-woo giving an relatively brief but memorable performance as Byung-guk; even knowing he's going to snap in the start, it's still effective, and the later scenes where he shows up seemingly uninhibited are nicely creepy. Kim Eui-sung dives into a deliciously nasty monster boss, while Park Sung-woong goes the other direction as a detective who can be sharp at times but generally seems more empathetic. Ryu Hyoung-kyoung is impressive as the middle manager closest to unraveling from the situation.

They get whittled down as the film goes on, because for all that filmmakers tend to want to ask questions and make points at the start - make the audience think about how the stress of corporate life shredding a vulnerable mind - it eventually becomes a thriller about who will and won't escape. It's a pretty good one; Hong and company excel at putting folks in scary boxes. The attempts at artistic ambiguity are a little iffier, though; they ride a line between characters seeming to only see what they can accept and others maybe thinking they are someone else (or, hey, even actually being possessed is a possibility), so what the audience winds up seeing is not always clear in intention.

At least there's an interesting bit of ambition there, though; this could have just been a slasher with a couple decent performances underneath. Office jobs being murder isn't a new idea, but it's also not always attacked with the vigor of this "Office".

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originally posted: 07/18/15 02:30:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hong Won-chan

Written by
  Yun-jin Choi

  A-sung Ko
  Sung-woong Park
  Seong-woo Bae
  Eui-sung Kim
  Hyun-kyung Ryu

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