Your job. The thing that you do to be able to afford what you need to live and what you want to enjoy that life. The thing takes up so much of your time and your thoughts. The thing that can define your life if you let it. The thing that eats away at your passions, at your soul. The thing that you should thank your lucky stars that you have. The first line in A Company Man is “Do you like your job?” That makes you hurt people and, in this case, murder people. Yeah, this is about contract killers.
Hyeong-do and Hoon work for a company called New Continental Metal. The metal is officially for boats, but really for bullets. They have been tasked with killing a guy who is under protection in some apartment building. Well, the 20-year-old Hoon has. The 30-something Hyeong-do has also been tasked with killing Hoon afterwards and making it look like he fell down the stairs or something so that only Hoon gets blamed. I guess that Hoon did not read the fine print of the contract and has been laid off on the bottom of the stairs. Before Hyeong-do can finish the job, though, a badly injured Hoon asks him for a favor before firing him: to deliver some money that Hoon had been saving up to his mother and younger sister. This is probably wildly against company protocol, but Hyeong-do is already feeling reservations about this job to which he had devoted himself for years even as he is up for promotion soon.
Eventually, Hyeong-do finds Hoon’s mother and 17-year-old sister. He gives them Hoon’s money, not telling them what he does or what he had done to Hoon and, instead, says that Hoon has gone abroad for the company. Hoon’s mother had no idea that Hoon had a job in the first place. Hyeong-do stays with them maybe a little longer than he should and finds out that she had been a professional singer when she was her daughter’s age. And not just any singer, but a singer whom he had admired as a kid and whom inspired him to try to become a singer himself before he realized that he simply could not cut it. Of course, now she works a seamstress and her daughter treats her musical past with scorn. For Hyeong-do, however, this brings back memories of a time when he was able to feel something; a time before he gave up his dreams for the real world.
As this is happening, the company is having problems with Hyeong-do’s former supervisor. It turns out that the man’s 7-year-old son was killed in a car accident and the man has just broken down. Hyeong-do is tasked with keeping an eye on him and trying to coax him to come back to work, but to kill him if necessary. Already feeling guilty over what he had to do to Hoon and developing feelings for Hoon’s mother, his effectiveness as a company man starts to erode and his own loyalty begins to enter shaky ground.
The actual story of A Company Man is nothing special, but it is the presentation that makes all of the difference. And this is what could make or break the movie for people. A lot of movies could draw parallels to criminal organizations and cutthroat corporate culture that expects workers to hand over their lives to their jobs, values only productivity, has no issue with endangering the lives of people outside of the company, and disposes of people without mercy when they become liabilities or just of little use: this one takes it to a thematic extreme. Pretty much everything about this New Continental Metal company is modeled after actual corporate practices, from having a floor (and a half) in an office building with cubicles to all going out for lunch to plaques for promotions to having a high-ranking executive who has absolutely no actual experience in the field. However, unlike Obamacare, this company probably does have actual death panels (Note: I originally wrote this in 2014). To an extent, it is sort of like how Mr. and Mrs. Smith had the assassination groups have actual corporate fronts, but here it is played completely straight. Well, not quite completely, but almost completely. The way to the secret lair in the office is kind of silly and there is one scene where a police officer is trying to convince his superior that NCM is a fraudulent company by taking him to a closed-down factory, only to be greeted by a guy at the front gate and another guy chasing a third guy around while driving a forklift. Because unions, right?
Sometimes the narrative thread between corporations and contract killing gets frayed, specifically every time that Hyeong-do describes himself or is described as working for a company, with little to no further explanation. Still, it kind of drives home that this movie could have been about any corporate job. He would simply be just another corporate drone in a business suit who starts to learn to feel compassion, remorse, and love again. This is basically a movie about a representative from a heartless corporation who comes face to face with the people affected by his actions and his employers’ destructive policies and undergoes a crisis of conscience. With a little bit of strategic editing, the first few minutes or so of the movie could have cut out all references to murder save for the metaphorical ones that show that his job hurts people and is killing him only on the inside. Of course, it gets harder to do so as the movie progresses, especially with the numerous action sequences. Yeah, there are plenty of contract killer movies that have similar storylines, but it is the way that this mixes text and subtext that makes it stand out for me.
Even towards a somewhat troubling climax that you can probably predict (and I will not confirm here even if you guess correctly), the movie is played so straight that it is difficult to say whether this was meant to be a satire or not. One possible clue, however, is the treatment of music. In the beginning, Hyeong-do confesses to Hoon that he had wanted to be a singer when he was 20-years-old. Hoon scoffs at that, saying that there is nothing for anyone who does not have the limelight. Of course, Hoon is talking about his mother, who was famous at 17 and got pregnant with Hoon at 18, but this is not revealed at the time. South Korean audiences would probably be aware that the actor playing Hoon had been a member of a boyband for two years before the release of this film and that the actor playing Hyeong-do had released a hip hop EP just a few months earlier. So, really, both of them may be familiar with the bloodthirsty corporate monster that is the South Korean music industry.
Once again, though, what could have been a throwaway meta joke becomes a melancholy thread throughout the movie. Singing for Hyeong-do was a dream that could not be achieved, with becoming a corporate assassin his true calling. Singing for Hoon was a fantastical dream with limited payoff even if one does succeed in it, so he is cynically using this contract killer job to make money, save money, and get away. Singing for Hoon’s mother is a remnant of her foolish past, something that she left behind and cannot bring herself to return to even if others ask her to. Singing for Hoon’s sister is a symbol of their mother’s hypocrisy and the foundation of her failings as a mother. Okay, so the singing stuff is not really a clue, though maybe it could be poking fun at South Korean movies penchant for melodrama. Honestly, it does not really matter to me. I kind of appreciated the near-straightfaced presentation of a corporate culture as literally being a killer and the implication that the entertainment industry is only slightly better, where you get tossed out if you are not bringing in the biggest of the big bucks. Dreams may be worth pursuing, but the rewards are always fleeting and the fall is always hard.
Perhaps this film bites off more than it can chew with its conceit that may not be quite as clever as it could be. Still I quite like it, regardless of whether the premise is meant to be funny or simply serious. It takes what could have been a standard romance drama and combines it with what could have been a standard action flick to make a pretty interesting watch.
WTF ASIA 12: Ocean Heaven (China/Hong Kong: 2010, approx. 97 minutes)
WTF ASIA 13: The Music Room (India: 1958, approx. 99 minutes)