Directed by: Hong Won-chan || Produced by: Choi Yun-jin
Screenplay by: Choi Yun-jin || Starring: Go Ah-sung, Park Sung-woong, Bae Seong-woo, Kim Eui-sung, Ryu Hyun-kyung, Lee Chae-eun, Son Soo-hyun, Park Jung-min, Oh Dae-hwan
Music by: Kim Tae-seong || Cinematography: Park Yong-su || Edited by: Kim Sun-min || Country: Korea || Language: Korean
Running Time: 111 minutes
Korean filmmaking is so good that even its bad or mediocre films are entertaining in unique and memorable ways. Case in point are films like The Villainess (2017), an unforgettable action movie designed around 1st-person point-of-view (POV) camerawork, outrageous stunts, and ridiculous government conspiracies so implausible as to border on fantasy. Filmmakers deserve both commendation and derision in these rare instances of spectacular failure, efforts that tend to be the result of creativity overload or a salacious directorial style that cannot be contained.
Another recent example of Korean filmmaking style swallowing its own movie is Hong Won-chan’s Office, a creepy horror-satire of the modern Korean white-collar workplace. The film’s premise alone is enough to hook most cinephiles: A disgruntled but otherwise ordinary businessman (Bae Seong-woo) snaps and murders his entire family without provocation, then is seen re-entering his workplace before his coworkers return the next day. That’s what I call an enticing — not to mention unsettling — setup.
The disappointing thing about Office is how it never takes full advantage of this simple, dynamic premise, or rather how it overthinks it. Most audiences would anticipate a straightforward genre experiment from that sort of inciting incident, one of those Cube (1997), Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Die Hard (1988)-type platforms that take place over a single night at a single location. I anticipated something to that effect whereby our main cast would play a game of cat-and-mouse against Bae, and I stand by my assertion it would’ve made for a stronger, more entertaining movie than whatever the hell this is. What writer-producer Choi Yun-jin gives us instead is a prolonged, verbose commentary on Korean business culture with a weird, ambiguous ending and a few murders committed by… someone.
If my recounting the movie’s narrative arc makes you scratch your head, then congratulations, I’ve replicated my emotional reaction to this film in you, dear reader, without you having even seen the film! Office’s narrative structure and ultimate conclusion are so baffling that its effective scares and suspenseful tone feel little more than impressive window dressing by story’s end. For starters, the film’s story feels twice its length thanks to its weak pacing. Sequences of castmembers arguing about workplace deadlines, coworker harassment, and petty office gossip grow repetitive and feel incredulous given the gruesome deaths throughout, even if assuming director Hong is working the satirical angle till he’s blue in the face. Flashbacks are also strewn throughout the narrative seemingly at random, with few editing or set-design clues to indicate a change in timeline, which confuses narrative progression and further complicates the already confusing ending. Speaking of that ending, the film reveals a narrative twist in its final act that reframes the entire story, which is ambitious, but in my opinion, unnecessary and unsatisfying. I have other complaints regarding various subplots that go nowhere, including one featuring an archetypal “hard-boiled detective” (Park Sung-woong), but sooner or later I’ll be repeating myself.
What are some unquestionable strengths of this ultimate failure of a horror movie? Well, director Hong executes a variety of scares, from horrific revelations to slow-burn chase sequences to jump-scares, well and gets the most out of his oppressive, haunting office architecture. The film’s set-design is more memorable than, say, The Belko Experiment (2016), which released a year later with a similar premise, but that also reminds me how much of this effective setup was wasted. All cast performances are great, for the record, none more so than Go Ah-sung, of The Host (2006) and Snowpiercer (2014) fame. With a few cinematographic tweaks and narrative restructuring, Office could’ve made for an off-kilter dramatic satire of white-collar business the way David Michod’s War Machine (2017) was for the American campaign in Afghanistan.
“Unnecessary and unsatisfying” is the catchphrase with which I would summarize this entire movie. Its narrative development is so inexplicable and its overall tone, so wavering I feel it wastes its irresistible premise. I’m not sure whether to blame Office’s overly complicated structure on its screenwriter, director, or both; yet, the end result is a horror film that squanders its set-pieces on a messy exploration of East Asian white-collar culture when it could’ve and should’ve used the latter to enhance its horror. Office feels like Alien (1979) if Ridley Scott sidelined his titular antagonist to make room for more social commentary regarding the Weyland-Yutani corporation because, you know, dark satire. Many of the best genre films, including Alien, succeed by keeping their storyline simple and their characters, themes, and style complex. Hong Won-Chan’s and Choi Yun-jin’s Office does the complete opposite and is a failure because of it. While I find it impressive how even the “lesser” internationally recognized Korean hits are enjoyable in their own way, at the end of the day, I would’ve preferred a less ambitious but more cohesive version of this same concept.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Though it features capable direction, solid filmmaking vision, and a premise to die for, Office doesn’t live up to its dark satire and undercuts its effective jump scares, memorable tension, and admirable performances in service of a nonsensical story that ends with audiences scratching their heads instead of cowering beneath their blankets. Multiple subplots never pay off, nor does the bizarre narrative twist in the third act. All explanations I’ve researched for this baffling script make the film look worse in retrospect.
— However… director Hong maintains a creepy atmosphere throughout and makes great use of his foreboding sets. Everyone, including and especially Bae Seong-woo and lead Go Ah-sung, act well and have great chemistry with one another.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED. As entertaining as the film can be, Office just isn’t worth the confusing story and borderline pointless ending.
? How did the murderer, whoever it was, fit an adult male’s body above those office ceiling panels?