Who hates their employer? A cursory survey amongst friends, relatives and co-workers may reveal that, while ‘hate’ is perhaps too strong a term, they feel a level of dissatisfaction with their job. Some might even consider their superiors to be aggravating, power-hungry, selfish, annal-retentive demons (and exhale). It might not be very wise however to act out on one’s frustrations, as a simple matter of human decency and preserving the likelihood of further professional opportunities. Ji Hyeong-do (So Ji-sub), the central figure in Lim Sang-yoon’s A Company Man, is not limited by such moral or utilitarian matters. Not all, in fact.
Hyeong-do company presents itself to the world as a leading metallurgy exporter, with business connections across Asia and head offices in Seoul. In reality, it is a front for their real speciality: contract assassinations. When Ji-sub is asked to eliminate what the company describes as a ‘temp’ (temporary partners on a job), the latter begs Ji-sub to help send to money to his family. The young man’s mother, Lee Mi-yeon (Youo Su-yeon), awakens something previously dormant within the protagonist, namely feelings. This soon compromises Ji-sub position within the company, who then plan to take him and the woman out. Big mistake.
It would be futile trying to espouse that A Company Man brings anything earth shattering to the familiar sub-genre of ‘agency’s best asset is betrayed by the people he trusted prompting him to do the right thing and take them down.’ On the whole, that is what transpires in Im Sang-yoon’s movie. Hyeong-do discovers an avenue that will hopefully fulfill him in ways that he had never previously given serious consideration in the shape of a kind woman, prompting him to make choices which stray from company protocol. His employer disavows him under threat of death and Hyeong-do ensures that is the last mistake they ever do, the end. Thankfully, the filmmakers nevertheless succeed in breathing at least some fresh air into the story by making some unexpected choices and having the final showdown in a location that will be seen as a wet dream by people who toil away in dull office buildings.
In that regard, A Company Man does exemplify some creative thinking. Precisely how the protagonist deals with the order to eliminate the temp at the beginning of the film has greater ramifications than originally anticipated, not to mention that the blossoming romance between Hyeong-do and Su-yeon is provided a twist before the final act which lend the former’s motivation to destroy his company a different slant. There is even a betrayal that comes completely out of left field and sends the protagonist’s vendetta into a serious tailspin for a while.
In addition to those small surprises, the aforementioned climax features a setting that in other films or contexts would have seemed mundane: office cubicles. If there was ever a movie that takes the perverse fantasy of hitting back at disagreeable co-workers or bosses around the office to the next level, A Company Man is it. In a way, the film’s twisted climax taps into a that very fantasy in s stunningly visceral way. The confrontation between Hyeong-do and literally all of his pistol and rifle equipped former colleagues would make John Woo proud. These touches do not represent major departures from the norm, yet they still serve as small breaths of fresh within a genre that, frankly, has been exercised to death by now.
Greatly assisting the story is the fact that director Lim Sang-yoon knows how to make a slick film. A Company Man exudes that polished, refined aesthetic so many of his filmmaking compatriots are experts at crafting. Again, there is not much that one could single out as especially distinct about the look, anything that would help support the claim that this director is clearly an auteur. Even so, it is easy to admire the craftsmanship. In some instances slickness is derided by critics has being proof of the absence of any personal touch (unless the director is, say, Zack Snyder or Baz Luhrmann), but should that be reason enough to take a few points off the scorecard? Not if said polish is used to the utmost effect, which is definitely the case with A Company Man.
So far as the acting is concerned, So Ji-sub and Lee Mi-yeon have excellent chemistry together. Neither plays a particularly outspoken characters, thus giving their connection a sweetly quiet tone. It is refreshing to witness a romance that has less to do with words and more to do with gestures and looks, putting more emphasis on physical acting than dialogue. Credit to So Ji-sub who, through his strong screen presence, creates a fully fledged man out of a role that barely requires him to say anything. He is the quietly disillusioned employee, which could resonate with a lot of viewers.
Chalk up another one for the South Koreans, who continue to prove their top class quality filmmaking, even within tired genres. A Company Man stays afloat with an excellent cast, handsome filmmaking and some fresh spins on familiar tropes. Lim Sang-yoon can be add to the increasingly long list of talented directors from that country whose name will definitely register amongst genre fans for the foreseeable future.