South Korean horror thriller film “Office” is scary when it deals with a ruthless corporate culture many South Korean people are familiar with. We frequently cringe at how the characters in the film often get themselves humiliated, and we are often chilled by how they allow themselves to be pushed and pressured in the name of raise and promotion. It is a jungle out there, and they must be willing to do anything as demanded from above just for getting ahead of others.
During the opening scene, we meet Kim Byeong-gook (Bae Seong-woo), a middle-aged family man who works as the manager of the sales department in a prominent corporation company. There is something ominous about his quiet, passive appearance as he is returning to his comfortable home, but his family does not suspect anything – even when he is standing behind them with a hammer in his hand.
In the next morning, everyone in his department is shocked by what Byeong-gook committed at last night, and two cops already come there for investigation. While their prime suspect is still missing, Jong-hoon (Park Seong-woong) and his partner interview each employee in the office about whether they noticed anything strange about Byeong-gook recently, but they do not get any useful clue about Byeong-gook’s motive behind killing his whole family. Everyone says he was a nice, quiet, and diligent man who had no particular trouble with others, and that is why this incident is all the more shocking to them.
In case of Lee Mi-rye (Ko Ah-seong, who previously appeared in Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” (2013)), a young intern who usually looks a little too eager and nervous in front of others, she seems to know something else. Shortly after she hurriedly arrives in the office while being a little late for work due to traffic problem, she is surprised to find something inside her desk drawer, and it turns out that is not the only thing she would rather hide from the detectives. One of her seniors warns her in advance that she should keep her mouth shut about their boss, so she only says what others already said to Jong-hoon before, though he instinctively senses that she and others in the sales department did not tell everything to him.
Despite Byeong-gook’s murder, things go on as usual for Mi-rye and others in the office because, well, they have jobs to do. A routine meeting on their recent sales performance is turned into a grueling moment of insult and humiliation when the chief of their department bullies and scorches almost everyone in the meeting, and this seemingly mundane scene looks more grotesque as it is a dark and stormy afternoon outside. The chief makes it very clear to them that they must work harder for better sales performance, and everyone feels like being on the edge while trying to save each own position by any means necessary.
Meanwhile, it looks possible that Byeong-gook is hiding somewhere inside the office building. Not long after his murder, he was shot by a closed-circuit TV camera in the parking lot right below the building, and then he has never been witnessed since that point. It seems he has more work to do in his office, and that is certainly not a good thing to anyone who happens to work alone in the office during late hours.
Now this is a typical case of mad killer on the loose, so we are served with several scenes where characters feel like there is someone else besides them. While we can easily see that there will be surprises or shocks to jolt us during these scenes, the director Hong Won-chan, who previously handled the screenplays for “The Chaser” (2008) and “The Yellow Sea” (2010), knows how to generate the sense of dread and tension to hold our attention. In case of one terrifying moment unfolded within a toilet booth, we can only guess what may be behind the door as the level of suspense is increased, and then the movie strikes us with an expected moment of shock, which is clearly influenced by that infamous scene from “Psycho” (1960).
In the meantime, the movie gradually focuses on the realistic horror inside the harsh office environment which has been surrounding and suffocating Mi-rye. Feeling more nervous and alienated than before due to the absence of a man who was kind and generous to her before his bloody transgression, she later learns that her position in the office is not as stable as she once thought, and her senior employees do not help her much except a few casual advices. We later see her small residence outside Seoul, and its shabby appearance further emphasizes how desperately she has held onto her job. When she came to work in Seoul, she simply hoped for a good job and a nice life, but that simple wish looks like something beyond her reach now no matter how much she tries harder.
While Park Seong-woong holds the ground as a no-nonsense cop determined to track down his suspect, Ko Ah-seong is well-cast as an introverted heroine stuck at the bottom of office hierarchy, and Bae Seong-woo is disturbing enough to hover around the film even when he does not appear on the screen. Kim Ee-seong, who recently played a corrupt prosecutor in “Minority Opinion” (2013), is suitably despicable again here in this film, and Ryoo Hyeon-kyeong, Lee Chae-eun, Son Soo-hyeon, Park Jeong-min, and Oh Dae-hwa are a bunch of office lackeys who will not be safe from a murderous aura lurking around their office.
Although its climax part is a little too shaky mainly because of a number of contrivances which will test your tolerance of implausibility, “The Office” mostly works thanks to competent direction and good performances, and it also makes some biting points on the unpleasant aspects of South Korean corporate culture. As said in “Psycho”, people go a little mad sometimes, and you may say they have plenty of reasons for that in this case.