Sound is king in the claustrophobic thriller ‘Office’

The soundscape of “Office” isn’t chilling on its surface: phones ring, fingers clack on keyboards, and papers get shuffled around. Just by their mundanity, you’d think they’d fade into the background. Director Hong Won-chan and sound designer Kim Chang-seop make sure this doesn’t happen. The noise of white collar Korea is essential to representing the horror of it, so “Office” takes the slasher approach and turns the volume up a notch too high.

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It’s a disquieting choice that always keeps you on your toes. In one of many pulse-pounding sequences, the office-worker-gone-postal Kim Byeong-gook (Bae Seong-woo) stalks his junior Jung Jae-il (Oh Dae-hwan) when he stays late for work. Trying to escape, Jung discovers Kim has chained them inside the office while he hears footsteps on the tile behind him. The footfall sounds like it could be anywhere, and, with a long, wide shot of the office entry, Hong Won-chan lets the suspense build to unbearable levels.

He’s an excellent director who has a deep understanding of how slasher-thrillers work. While sound is his main tool, he’s just as comfortable using space. The movie is called “Office” after all. The titular setting is expansive, broken up by rows of cubicles, but feels smaller than a sedan’s interior because there are plenty of places to hide. Soon after Kim goes postal and murders his family with a hammer, he’s seen on security footage entering his office building but never leaving. Detective Jong-Hoon (Park Sung-woong) believes he’s hiding there. Short on leads, he focuses on the intern Lee Mi-rye (Go Ah-sung), a doe-eyed recent hire who knows more than she lets on.

Even after the revelation that Kim is hiding in the office, work days proceed as normal. Here, the movie finds its simple structure: night and day. In the day, people go about their days, noticing stranger and stranger things around the office. At night, as in any good slasher movie, things go to hell. The sound design sharpens in these moments, erasing all background noise and hyperfocusing on one sound like your average Joe would.

The most successful aspect of “Office” is how easily it puts you into the character’s shoes. Just by virtue of how the space is set up, they see little and hear everything. The power of suggestion is strong here and used as expertly as the classic slashers. Unlike those classic slashers, there’s nothing inhuman about Kim. In fact, he’s a pleasant guy. People around the office hate him for his graceless manner and rigid work ethic, but he talks with a hushed dignity. Maybe that quiet quality is what drew the equally soft-spoken Lee to him. Together, they become the silent center of the movie. That is until night comes. When the “Office” empties, all it takes is an unseen mouse-click or falling binder to catch whoever stays behind