Life is hard for the average Korean salaryman, and sometimes that engenders a need to blow off a little steam. For many that involves drinking to excess, but for others it can spill over into the homestead. New Korean horror-thriller Office takes this to a disturbing extreme as a diligent and seemingly placid cubicle worker returns home from work and quietly eats dinner, before taking a hammer to his wife, mother and handicapped son. Intercut with statics shots of the homogeneous residential blocks surrounding the apartment, the instrument comes down again and again, raining crimson over the blank white walls.
Hong Won-chan, the scribe for genre favorites The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), takes his first shot at bat with a work that begins as a tense, mysterious and socially biting chamber thriller before stumbling into a typical slasher routine.
The morning after the slaying, nervous intern Mi-rye hurries to work, only to discover a detective investigating the 'hammer killer', who turns out to be her colleague, and the only person to have showed her any kindness. The investigator interviews the workers and eventually sniffs out the intern's connection with his quarry. Later that day, his team discovers that the killer returned to the office tower and never left.
Office politics play a big part in Hong's debut and just as in other recent Korean fare set in the workplace, a lowly employee, acting as our surrogate, shows us how punishing and unfair the office pecking order can be. Existing somewhere between the realistic indie 10 Minutes (2013) and the more conventional horror The Wicked, Office plays off the pressure cooker environment presented when a nebbish intern tries to land a permanent position, only to have a more qualified and congenial temp sweep in beneath her. All of this in the midst of a murder investigation during which company employees are clearly withholding crucial information.
The company unit depicted here is a familiar one to Korean workers, as a clamorous division chief yells insults at his staff, catty managers sneer at their underlings and interns bob their heads in contrition. To demonstrate just how common these workplace dynamics are, Hong also shows us scenes of the homicide detective being spoken down to by his own blustery chief.
While the narrative eventually slacks away from its compelling premise, settling for a conventional denouement, a game ensemble cast lifts the material above similar horror fare. Busy character actor Bae Sung-woo (he had nine credits last year) brings a tranquil creepiness to the serial killer, Hong Sangsoo stalwart Kim Eui-sung makes for a suitably vile supervisor, and Son Soo-hyun strikes a great balance as the second (more competent) intern in her feature debut.
Ko Ah-sung, well known for her parts in Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2013), takes on her third role in Office, as the intern at the center of the mystery. As the perpetually nervous and unwillingly anti-social Mi-rye, she presents a consistent if slightly strained performance that is thankfully propped up by her veteran co-stars. As the detective, a character that feels underdeveloped, Park Sung-woong is adequate but miscast. He fares much better in fellow Cannes invitee The Shameless.
Surprisingly, Hong does not direct from his own script (which was penned by Choi Yoon-jin), which may account for the less inspired horror steps the film tracks in its back half, though he did rework the story, which certainly bears his mark. Office kicks off with a mix of office hierarchy satire and investigative thriller that is at once familiar in its details and clever in its construction. Much like with The Chaser, Hong teases new tricks out of this intersection of standard genre tropes. Though given the direction the story ultimately takes, one hopes he will next be afforded the opportunity to direct from his screenplay.
Throughout, tech specs are solid, particularly Park Yong-soo's lensing, which manages to keep the visuals interesting despite mostly taking place in a grid of grey cubicles. However, the soundtrack by Monopole, which is more of a brooding hum than a score, leaves something to be desired. An intriguing workplace chiller that works up a few good ideas before converting them into commonplace scares, Office is an uneven but mostly solid addition to the crowded Korean thriller and horror fields.
This review also appeared on Twitchfilm.com