The workplace is scarier than any haunted house in “Office,” a South Korean psychothriller that’s razor-sharp as a satire on petty politics in the corporate world, but becomes sledgehammer-blunt when it wades into gory slasher territory. Tyro helmer Hong Won-chan boasts an instinctive grasp of when to dish out scream-worthy jolts and shocks, but the screenplay, though laced with wickedly bitchy dialogue, could have been more carefully thought out in terms of coherence and behavioral logic. Still, it’s hearty genre entertainment that provides an eye-catching vehicle for leading actress Ko A-sung, who’s made an impression in Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” and “Snowpiercer.” Pic should find easy employment in Asian genre ancillary.
Kim Byung-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has had a rough day at the office, but his family notices nothing amiss when he comes home, until he pulls out a hammer. The next day, Det. Choi Jung-hoon (Park Sung-woong) and his team arrive at food-and-beverage company Cheil to question members of Sales Division 2, where Byung-guk worked his way up to become sales manager. He is now at large after causing a bloodbath at home.
His colleagues are unanimous in vouching for him as a hard-working, dependable employee, but the seasoned cop can read between the lines that he was not Mr. Popular. Choi zeroes in on mousy intern Mi-rae (Ko), who — despite a stern warning from their boss, Kim (Kim Eui-sung), not to breathe a word to the police — admits that Byung-guk has been stressed and miserable. As Choi dredges up more dirt on how Byung-guk was picked on at work, we also become privy to the company’s cutthroat culture. Corporate meetings play like the drum sessions in “Whiplash,” in which Kim steamrolls over his staff’s egos, while employees are trapped in a veritable penal colony of overtime, killing themselves and each other to meet unreasonable performance targets.
Shin Yu-jin’s production design constructs the office as a fenced in, monotonous space by day and a spooky twilight zone by night, haunted by flickering lights, the ghostly hum of printers and hard drives, and working drones who roam around like ghouls. When uncanny things happen bearing Byung-guk’s enigmatic imprint, the creeping dread ratchets up a notch.
Most of the office politics are observed through the callow eyes of Mi-rae, who hovers around her seniors, trying to make herself useful, but is never admitted into their inner circle. As her predicament moves into sharper focus, the story becomes steadily more compelling. The gossip mongering, backbiting and bullying among the staffers are done in an insidious way, set in motion by characters who are by no means monsters. The arrival of Da-min (Son Su-hyun), a new intern who’s more privileged and prepossessing, further endangers Mi-rae position. Their unspoken rivalry is intriguing to watch, and Mi-rae’s desperate fear of being replaced is partly validated by their clone-like resemblance in hairstyle and appearance. Though Byung-guk is supposed to lurk in the background, Mi-rae’s angst mirrors his to the point that he becomes her alter ego.
First-time helmer Hong sustains tension for the most part, but as the violence and mayhem escalate in the final reel, the plot and characterizations lose some of their teasing ambiguity. The last half-hour becomes both over-the-top and formulaic, though one bitchslapping sequence, which will remind some viewers of the Korean Air “nut rage” incident in its deranged aggressiveness, offers a satisfying payoff.
As the doe-eyed country girl who initially elicits sympathy before gradually revealing a dark side, the expressive Ko encompasses all these contradictions, while her nervous poise, exaggerated by the tight skirts and high heels she has to wear, insinuates her precarious position in the company. In a subdued performance, Park nonetheless conveys the decency of Det. Choi, who, despited being tethered to a chain of command similar to that Cheil’s, is the only person who shows Mi-rae some kindness and understanding. The two actors have considerable chemistry together.
Tech credits are uneven. Kim Sun-min’s editing would benefit from considerable tightening of multiple flashbacks to reduce the confusion between timeframes, and the 115-minute running time is overlong. Action contains fresh, surprising elements, but the stunt choreography sometimes defies laws of physics and human physiology. Kim Chang-sub’s sound mix insinuates a strong sense of menace without cliched crash-bang noises.