Office (O piseu) review

Posted: August 24, 2015 in 2015 Fantasy FilmFest, Foreign, Reviews, Thriller
Tags: , , , ,

office2The new Korean thriller Office has one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the power of image in recent memory. A single shot, some five minutes into the movie, showing a hand gripping a hammer in the foreground and a domestic scene within an apartment in the background elicits gasps from audiences anticipating and fearing what will happen next before it is even shown. That director Hong Won-Chan can capture such a moment in his first feature film merits kudos, and, even if that represents the dramatic zenith of this uneven effort, his talent is unmistakable.

The worst fears that moment provokes prove to be well founded when the hammer is deployed in a deadly crime by Section Chief Kim Byeong-Gook (Bae Seong-Woo), a seemingly milquetoast middle manager in a nondescript Korean company. Why Kim did it and where is he now become the raison d’etre for the remainder of the film. Or is Kim a McGuffin, obscuring the truth from his work colleagues and the audience as to what is really going on?

The absence of a ready answer to that question underscores the chief problem with Office. The movie blends elements from the horror, thriller, police procedural, and psychological mystery genres with an occasional overlay of social commentary into a concoction that is not always palatable. Director Hong would have better served to focus his attention on fulfilling – or upending – the conventions of one genre, rather than attempting to elevate the suspense in what turns out to be a familiar narrative by liberally mixing film types.

The end result is that the movie, as a whole, is less than the sum of its considerable parts. The acting, in particular, is first rate, although the performances do not always appear synchronized. The standout in the ensemble cast is Ko Ah-Sung, known already to Western audiences for her role in Snowpiercer. Ko plays the office intern, Lee Mi-Rye, an office outsider much as the missing Kim was. As the possibility looms that Kim is in the building, stalking his former colleagues, Mi-Rye faces a threat of a different nature as the tyrannical office boss (Kim Eui-Sung) brings in another intern (Son Soo-Hyun), who is prettier, boasts a better resume, and has the all-important connections that may land her a permanent possession at the company at the older intern’s expense.

Trying to sort everything out is Detective Jong-Hoon (Park Sung-Woong) who plays a hardboiled copper as well as you could ask for, even if his being jerked on and off the case comes across as nothing more than crime movie cliché. If the second act of the film is too long by half, the denouement is exciting, and the question of what is really going on remains open longer than in many comparable movies. However, because of the mash-up of conventions that continues to the end, what the film is trying to say, even on the most superficial levels, about motivations, characters, and the nature of work pressure in Korea remains muddled.

Yet, even with its shortcomings, Office is a powerful film worth a watch and further evidence that Korean movies merit a wider audience in the West. Fantasy FilmFest deserves praise for bringing it and other outstanding examples of Korean genre cinema, including Snowpiercer, A Hard Day, and Man on High Heels, to audiences in Germany in recent years.

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