Tuesday, November 03, 2015

NYKFF ’15: Office

There is no reason a place of business should have to be a zone of self-esteem coddling currently termed a “safe place.” After all, grown-ups are working there. However, the Cheil Corporation is a whole different matter. There is nothing safe about this corporate headquarters, as proved by the rising body count. One hard-working but unpopular intern is at the center of the lethal mystery in Hong Won-chan’s Office (trailer here), which screens as the opening night selection of the 2015 New York Korean Film Festival.

One fateful night, Kim Byeong-gook came home, bludgeoned his family to death with a hammer and then returned to the office, where he apparently disappeared. CCTV has him entering but not exiting, so presumably he is haunting the building, like a salaryman Phantom of the Opera. This rather unnerves his superiors at Cheil, who treated him like dirt. Frankly, Lee Mi-rae was the only employee he was on friendly terms with, except she is not really an employee. She is still an intern, desperate to be hired full-time.

Unfortunately, being an earnest plugger like Kim, she just does not fit in with Cheil’s cutthroat corporate culture. Still, they ought to be a little nicer, considering the embarrassing information they are counting on her to keep secret from the investigating detective, Choi Jung-hoon. The subsequent dubious suicide of the office suck-up tipped for promotion will also presumably leave them greatly short-staffed. However, the sales director, Kim Sang-gyu seems to think he can make up ground through threats and emotional abuse.

At times, it is unclear whether Office (absolutely not to be confused with the Johnnie To musical of the same title) is meant to be a straight-up murder-mystery thriller or an unusually subtle horror film, but that ambiguity is actually pretty cool. The Jones & Sunn firm of To’s film might be problematic in some ways, but it has nothing on Chiel. Frankly, it makes both Office sitcoms and Mike Judge’s Office Space looks like lyric odes to cubicle life.

Probably best known to American audiences for her youthful turn in The Host and her adult breakout work in Snowpiercer, Ko Ah-sung is pretty darn incredible as the socially awkward Lee. We feel for her deeply, even as we suspect there is something funny about her. Likewise, Bae Sung-woo humanizes the ostensibly monstrous Kim Byeong-gook, just like Erik the Phantom. Ryoo Hyoun-kyoung also loses her composure rather spectacularly as shrewish but increasingly rattled Assistant Manager Hong Ji-sun, while the always reliable Park Sung-woong rock-solidly anchors the film as the hardnosed Det. Choi.

Whether you see it coming or not, Office is still a slick and gripping dark thriller. Hong and cinematographer Park Yong-soo capture the ominous look of florescent lighting and the cold, severe ambience of bullpen style cubes. Yet, with its one central setting and assortment of multiple suspects and potential victims, it is also refreshingly old school in its approach, like a white collar Deathtrap. Highly recommended for fans of suspense-related genres, Office screens this Friday (11/6) at the Museum of the Moving Image, as part of the 2015 NYKFF.