Review of film that formed part of the ‘0th’ Edition of the London East Asian Film Festival (LEAFF 2015)
White-collar worker Kim Byeong-gook (Bae Sung-woo) drinks a coffee alone in a diner, takes the commuter train surrounded by people on their phones, and – zombie-like – walks home, where, after dinner, he calmly bludgeons his loving wife, mother and young son to death with a hammer, before returning to work.
This blankly arresting prologue to Office (aka Opiseu) shows the kind of horrifying office-space alienation and latent rage that will become the film’s principal themes. Investigating the domestic murders, Detective Jong-hoo (Park Sung-woong) suspects that the perpetrator’s work colleagues are not being entirely honest about what happened in the days leading up to Byeong-gook’s domestic outrage – and he turns for help to nervous, overlooked intern Mirae (Ko Ah-sung). A Gwangju native who always dreamed of a successful career in Seoul, Mirae was the closest that Byeong-gook had to a friend in Sales Team 2 of energy drinks company Cheil, and is herself struggling to keep her grip on the corporate ladder. Yet with more deaths taking place, and the still at large Byeong-gook last seen on CCTV reentering the Cheil building, this directorial debut from Hong Won-chan (who co-wrote the screenplay for Na Hong-jin’s 2008 thriller The Chaser) looks set to become a high-bodycount bureaucratic slasher – except that Hong is also taking a knife to the soul-destroying hierarchies and power structures that dominate Korea’s high-pressure workspaces and political networks.
Though the Cheil bureau is open plan and surrounded by large glass windows, Hong transforms it into a claustrophobic terrain of ambition, anxiety and paranoia, where unhealthy rivalries do not just thrive, but are positively encouraged. Here characters’ real-life experiences are placed alongside their dreams and hallucinations, here an ordinary building also becomes an allegorical space for the processing of social and psychological tensions, and here fly-on-the-wall observation of office politics collides with murder mystery, psychodrama and ghostly possession. It is tempting to say that the connections between these disparate parts are seamless, but Hong’s whole point is instead to expose the cracks, and to show an imperfect mechanism ready to crumble and implode. With the office, as with Byeon-gook in the opening sequence, ordinary, banal exteriors conceal a substrate of vindictiveness, violence and despair.
“All organisations are the same,” Jong-hoo tells Mirae, “Even us police.” And indeed, as Jong-hoo conducts his investigation, we see him too being undermined and bullied by superiors more interested in keeping up appearances and advancing their own status than in the value of work. The problems that Hong presents in Office are systemic and societal, with Byeon-gook all at once victim, villain and ghost in the machine for a structure that could come apart at any time. He may have cracked, and Mirae – haunting the same diner as Byeon-gook, working on the same files, annoying her colleagues in the same way – may be the next to go. Yet Hong’s point is to show a madness that is collective rather than individual – in a Seoul that, though still a city of dreams, has also become a soulless nightmare. It is, after all, the place where everyone wants to leave their mark and make a killing.