Release Date: October 11th, 2012
Running Time: 96 mins.
Director: Lim Sang-Yoon
Writer: Lim Sang-Yoon (Screenplay)
Starring: So Ji-Sub, Lee Mi-Yeon, Kwak Do-Won, Kim Dong-Joon, Jeon Kuk-Hwan, Lee Kyoung-Young, Jang Eun-Ah,
At 96 minutes, A Company Man is a relatively lean and mean film which efficiently works its way through its narrative but the actual experience of watching it is less than engaging because it is highly derivative of other titles. It felt soulless despite the few good bits, an example of a film pillaging from other titles and adhering to standard tropes to make a passable title.
The handsome Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub) is the titular company man. He is a dedicated worker and a rising star at his metal trading company. Except that metal trading is a front for the organisation. What Heyong-Do’s company provides is assassins. The men and women who work in the office are highly trained killers and Heyong-Do is being groomed by the chief to be a manager.
Things go awry when he works with a temporary hire, a young man named Hyun-Yi who will act as an assassin and then be disposed of when the mission is completed. Hyun-Yi is shocked by the betrayal and his innocence shines through as his end at the hands of Hyeong-Do approaches. Hyun-Yi asks for a final favour from Heyong-Do which is to give money to his family. Heyong-Yi is moved by the plea and this leads him to come into contact with Su-Yeon (Lee Mi-Yeon), the mother of Hyun-Yi, a woman who affects Hyeong-Do on a deep level…
She’s a former singer who had two kids while still young and had to take up work in a garment factory after quitting her music career. It turns out that she was Hyeong-Do’s favourite singer while he was in school. He feels an attraction to her and this, mixed in with guilt over Hyun-Yi’s fate, leads him to start a relationship with Su-Yeoni. This means trips with her to the countryside and this opens up his world and he sees that there is more to life than the brutality peddled by his bosses and this brings him into conflict with his old job…
A Company Man does some things rather well. It quickly establishes the office culture with ease as we see neatly dressed men and women sat in their cubicles working behind cluttered desks which house automatic weapons. Everyday office stationary has some deadly function such as piano wire and knives hidden in watches and suit jackets, folders concealing automatic weapons and a trolley stacked with papers and ammunition for weapons that goes from cubicle to cubicle. In the filing room are the numerous shelves containing contracts for hits, a shooting range and knife-fighting arena. Each of these areas has a secretary and a boss in a glass cubicle who can watch over everything. It’s a triumph of production design which makes an evocative environment that describes a world where function and form are united to pursue the art of killing. It is the anonymous glass and steel and grey carpets we associate with such workplaces but with a deadly twist. The team spirit seems high, people chat at water coolers and some laze around when the boss is absent, but the few characters we get to know are actually competing fiercely with each other for a promotion which Heyong-Do wins.
It has been a hard-fought thing for Hyeong-Do and behind the ice cold façade we see that this is something that is wearing him out. He goes out on the most horrific and risky missions, coldly murders people and arrives back at the office to slump behind his desk, write a report for an ungrateful boss who is less capable than him and then clock off at the end of the day and return to an apartment exhausted and bored since there is little to his personal life.
It is all familiar territory but that allows the viewer to acclimatise quickly. The problem is that once these elements are done, there’s nothing else original and novel that is left that defines the film.
People who watch Korean films will find the film has a well-worn plot and narrative because it is derivative of a lot of other films. Indeed, it can be accused of being a clone of the far superior A Bittersweet Life(2005) but transposing the action to the world of office workers from that of gangsters. The protagonists from this film and A Bittersweet Life have the same lifestyle, apartment and fashion sense (there’s even a scene involving them ironing their suits in a bland room to get across the empty lifestyle!!!) and both go on the same journey for the same reasons and the same results happen only A Company Man lacks the humour and the outrageousness of the action scenes that A Bittersweet Life had. It lacks the tight scripting that provided an exploration of the revenge-thriller/neo-noir genres while plying the old tropes present for the viewer to engage with. It also lacks the emotional development for characters that hook a viewer.
The cast are given little to work with. Archetypes like a fatherly boss, a strong and upright single mother and surly teenage daughter abound and these are thinly sketched so while the actors are may be strong in their individual roles there is nothing that makes the characters memorable or unique and when they interact they say and do nothing totally exciting unless it is in the fights. Fatally, the film spaces the few fights out between long stretches of conversations which, while character specific and takng place in scenic locations, aren’t really that interesting and only serve to move the plot forward. When the dull characters speak dialogue which is rote stuff the film slows down tremendously and the tension seeps out.
If the characters suffer in the talking stakes, then the film comes to life in the fast-paced but few all-too brief action scenes. The film features some striking physical fights in tight environments where two men may grapple in nervy encounters that consist of short, sharp punches, grappling and submission holds. There is an outstanding close-quarters battle in a car where bullets zip through the interior as characters wrestle for a gun and this quickly turns into a knife fight where the flashing blade slashes the upholstery before the fighters take it outside for a high-stakes battle on a busy motorway. It is at moments like these when the film truly comes to life as the camera zips around with extremely quick movement and editing and fast paced pans that are familiar from other well-executed Korean action films.
The script’s failure to make any of the characters remotely emotionally engaging is a major disappointment that other Korean films typically avoid and this hamstrings the use of brutal violence. Why should we care about cardboard cutouts blasting each other?
Alas, it is hard to care about the outcome when the characters are so two dimensional. Curiously I found the big-bang finale of the extended gunfight in the office rather distasteful due to the rather flat nature of the scene and the realistic nature of the violence. Perhaps endless news reports of shootings in America have had some impact on me but I suspect it’s because the fight lacks the spark and gratuitousness of other films to raise it above the familiar and the characters are dull, a complaint I have kept making.
I love action films as other reviews like The Man From Nowhere shows but this was a disappointment. When watching A Company Man you will recognise that beneath the surface it is a film that lacks originality and the characters are dull so when they are not in fights the film struggles to be entertaining. It is a pretty film. The detailed, sleek and graceful cinematography makes the locations pleasing to look at for the most part but it is derivative of many other titles such as the neo-noir tales in the mould of Le Samurai (1967) and countless revenge thrillers that Korea excels at. There is no adventurous side to it, this is a precision piece of filmmaking that adheres to rules and conventions, takes from other films and has had the life sucked out of it to create a safe title.