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From Cannes: "O Piseu" ("Office") Thrills, Horrifies

Dir. Hong Won-chan (Distr. TBA)—4 Stars

In perhaps one of the most provocative opening scenes in cinema history, “O Piseu” (English “Office”) begins with hardworking family man Kim Byung-Guk (Bae Seong-Woo) bludgeoning to death his mother, wife, and young son with a hammer. This horrific and bloody scene sets the stage for the rest of the film, a tense thriller in which homicide detective Choi Jong-Hoon (Park Sung-woong) searches for the still at-large Kim. He discovers that Kim, who was disliked and marginalized by his colleagues, was only close to an intern named Lee Mi-Rye (Ko A-Sung), who seems to be hiding an important secret. Further adding to the case’s intrigue, Kim was recorded on a security camera entering the office’s parking garage following his gruesome crime, but no footage displays him leaving.

Director Hong Won-Chan makes a masterful feature film debut with “O Piseu,”; he uses traditional horror techniques such as tight framing to magnificently build tension and manipulate the film’s atmosphere. At certain points in the film, the line between reality and hallucinations becomes blurred, and it is unclear whether the fugitive Kim is actually lurking behind every corner. The office’s cubicles are transformed into a horrifying maze of blind spots, especially after work hours when the lights are dimmed and solitary characters are working overtime. Bae’s dead-faced performance as Kim complements the film’s intensity, as he captures with alarming accuracy the demeanor of a sociopathic killer.

The film’s latter half gradually shifts focus to Lee, who is similarly shunned and mocked in the workplace despite her dedicated work ethic. Ko does a fantastic job portraying this neurotic character, especially her gradual descent into madness as a result of her professional failings. However, Choi Yun-Jin’s script still renders her an unsympathetic protagonist—it is hard to care for a shy, self-pitying character who makes no concerted effort to better her own situation.

Hong transforms this thriller into a full-blown slasher flick by the film’s final part, and with no suspect to be found, one wonders if certain characters are facing karmic retribution for their overzealous professional competitiveness. The film makes an interesting critique of the formality of Korean society, and its bloody denouement comes off as a direct denouncement of the workplace rat race. The office is a literal prison, and the film seems to argue that those beholden to it ultimately lose more than just their sanity—if they do not leave in time.

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