I’m finally getting around to talking about Office – perhaps because it’s that time of the year. New year, new me, everyone keeps saying, and I am good, but the rest of the world is definitely stressful. I’ve been dealing with it the way I deal with most stressful things: by watching horror movies until I fall asleep with the TV blaring.
Office was released in 2015, so it’s definitely not new. But for those of you who haven’t seen it yet: it’s a Korean thriller by Won-Chan Hong, where an overworked intern deals with ghostly possession and an unhinged coworker. The depiction of unsteady, underpaid work as a subliminal form of terror is a great analogy to draw.
For me, Office is scary in that “it hits too close to home” way – very much in the manner of It Follows when it comes to the topic of sexual assault. With Go Ah-sung playing the perpetually stressed-out Lee Mi-Rye, Office paints a vivid picture of a recent graduate who managed to snag what she thinks is the internship of her dreams. Instead, it ends up abusive. Mi-Rye’s internship is highly sought after, but she is ruthlessly bullied by her coworkers over everything from her looks to her recalcitrant nature. Unfortunately she needs to stay in the position because she has no other choice.
Like many millennials with temporary employment (seriously, it’s a lot of us), Mi-Rye is living below the poverty line. She hides her poverty so she isn’t ostracized further, but in Seoul’s highly competitive workforce having her contract dissolved is seen as a form of failure. The only person who shows her any degree of kindness is her direct supervisor, Kim Byeong-Gook, but like Mi-Rye he is bullied by their coworkers.
After Kim suffers a nervous breakdown and murders his entire family, he returns to their company building to hunt down and kill their marketing team. Because of her close relationship with him, Mi-Rye is seen as an accomplice.
Obviously this comparison between the persistent dread of insecure employment and a supernatural rampage is done to the extreme. But the tense pacing of Office – and the terror that creeps up on Mi-Rye as she repeats a series of repetitive tasks for no benefit – is the reason why this film struck me so deeply. Her hellish workplace drives this deeper into the realm of horror.
You can see it in how Mi-Rye carries herself, and in how she constantly struggles with not being ‘good enough.’ At first she thinks that if she stays quiet about Kim Byeong-Gook and keeps her head down that she’ll be left alone and be allowed to keep her job. Unfortunately she’s not. She has no power to speak up when she’s being bullied by the others in the office. When Detective Jong-Hoon approaches her about Kim, she is locked in a room and pressured by another man to lie about her working environment. Mi-Rye is so terrified of losing her job that she agrees to do this, and she starts to steal the marketing projects from her coworkers to pass them off as her own (in order to appear more useful). Her worst fears come true, however, when she discovers that she is being replaced by a younger, wealthier, more beautiful woman who doesn’t need the job to stay solvent. Meanwhile, Mi-Rye is set to starve.
As a woman of Mi-Rye’s age I will say that her struggles ring true to me, in that you do have to worry about your ability to succeed being hindered by nepotism and gender. Long gone are the halcyon days of our parents, where steady employment with benefits were the norm (or at least an achievable dream). Millennials are often asked to work temporary jobs for little pay, and we’re pressured to take these jobs because there are few options. Office’s portrayal of this reality turns an otherwise standard horror trope (a ghostly possession) into something that had me sitting on the edge of my seat.
You can still find the Office streaming on Netflix, so before I spoil the rest of this movie my vote is to give it a watch. Trust me when I say its a couple of cathartic hours well-spent.