By Johanna Isaacson
(Tons of Spoilers!)
We are in a golden moment of Korean anti-capitalist culture. Squid Games has shown us the hellscape of capitalist debt. And Parasite has illuminated class tensions in service work. Less is said about a film which could be called the first of a Korean class-war trilogy. Illuminating the toxic environment of the white collar workplace, Office presents us with anti-heroes whose meek “tactlessness” is their downfall, but also their means to revolt.
The film begins by following an ordinary “everyman” office worker who takes the subway home from work, has dinner with his loving family, and then slaughters them all with a hammer.
Next, we see a harried young woman rushing to get to work. With panicked body language, she pushes herself through crowds and sprints toward her office, only to get stuck on a stalled elevator. Once she arrives (late) at the office she realizes that business is not as usual. The “Hammer Killer” turns out to be an intimate co-worker, Kim Byeong-gook, and the police are there to question his colleagues for clues to his motives and whereabouts.
The employees of this corporation, Chein, describe Mr. Kim as “very obedient,” “dedicated,” “good work ethics,” “never one to be late” and “not a psycho.” We also learn that he was a dedicated family man who missed company dinners to take care of his disabled son. No one can fathom how he could have committed this heinous act. Still, we get the feeling that Mr. Kim was viewed dubiously by his work team—one co-worker describes him as “tactless.”
When the detective in charge of the case, Jong-hoon, interviews Mi-Rae, the young intern we have seen rushing to work, he makes explicit what we sense in these interviews—Mr. Kim wasn’t well liked. Detective Jong-hoon describes the work culture in South Korea as one that rejects people like Mr. Kim, who are hardworking and dedicated, but are also awkward and self-serious. In fact, we will learn that Jong-hoon and Mi-Rae share with Mr. Kim this “unlikability.” All three are from working class backgrounds and no matter how hard they try, they don’t have access to what Pierre Bourdieu calls the “habitus” to appear relaxed and easy-going in conformity with the affective demands of the Korean workplace.
As Jong-hoon questions Mi-rae he senses she is holding back information, but she runs off before he can pin her down. When she returns to the office she is distracted and scattered. Attempting to tamp down her unruly emotions, she tidies the abandoned desk of Mr. Kim, the “Hammer Killer,” but she is rebuked by a co-worker. When she returns to her desk, she is horrified to discover a long, sharp knife in the top drawer.
In a subsequent office meeting, we see the abusive culture of this workplace as the office director berates his employees, denigrating their performance and excoriating them for not putting in enough overtime. They should have been at the office on Sunday, he spits, rather than attending ancestral ceremonies or church. Even though the more popular members of the sales team appear relaxed, they can’t escape the abuse and torturously long hours that characterize S. Korean office culture, which is known to lead some employees to “gwarosa,” death by overworking.[i] South Koreans log in more work hours per week than workers in almost any other country, usually toiling through six-day weeks that exceed the usual nine to five. Recently, this problem, which has been seen as one affecting mainly males, has been proved to affect women, whose suicide rates due to overwork have spiked. Overtime is required of salaried workers, but increasingly this affects contract workers who must work overtime to earn enough to survive.[ii] This adds a new layer to the wildly popular show, Squid Games, where the players (who are really workers) can never go home.
Yet, these long hours are not seen to be incompatible with the fantasy of the “fun” workplace. One start-up employee noted that he was tortured with impossibly long hours, even though workers at his company were encouraged to be “casual,” wearing shorts and calling each other nicknames. Ironically, his company’s slogan was: “creating the world where people can enjoy their work.”[iii] In some cases, overwork extends to “fun” company excursions, such as mandatory games and parties, where attention to hierarchy is required but also must be seamless and invisible, again pointing to the death sports in Squid Games, which are announced so casually by the players’ class rulers. This relates to what Melissa Gregg calls “presence bleed,” the tendency to be always working in the era of long hours, smart-phones, home offices, and mandatory work socializing. The question becomes, are we (or our emotions) ever not on the job?[iv]
In Chein’s corporate culture, almost always working is still not enough. Skipping Sundays is seen as a betrayal. The one worker who escapes the director’s scorn is Ms. Hong, who did come in on the previous Sunday. We learn more about the emotional demands on these workers when the director praises her method of drumming up more business. Not only did she work extra hours, but she was also able to infuse pathos into her sales pitches, emotionally manipulating customers to purchase more of whatever it is that this company sells. The director praises Ms. Hong for her ability to produce “deceitful tears,” but it is clear that unscripted negative emotions will not be tolerated. During the meeting no mention is made of Mr. Kim, their killer team-member, except to reassign his work and produce more stress for the team’s remaining employees.
In a flashback we learn that this same director publicly disparaged Mr. Kim’s disabled child. After these insults, Mr. Kim went back to his desk rather than join the team for their group lunch. Mi-rae volunteered to fetch him but although they were close, Mr. Kim met her request with a strange, blank stare, and toyed with a knife in his desk drawer, refusing to join the group. Disturbed, Mi-rae tried to catch up with her colleagues, but they had used the opportunity to ditch her, leaving her to wander the crowded, alienating streets of Seoul alone throughout the lunch hour.
To add to Mi-rae’s humiliation, she is asked to bring tea to the director as he interviews another intern. She overhears a fragment of their chummy conversation— “When I was in grad school he and I drank like fish!”— indicating that the boss and perspective employee have common acquaintances. This new intern, Shin Da-mi, integrates with ease into the affective requirements of Chein’s office culture. A cosmopolitan, worldly grad student from an upper class background, Da-mi makes herself instantly liked. Unlike Mi-rae who lives in a slum in the outskirts of Seoul, hours from her workplace, Da-mi can afford to live in the city, making the overtime demands of the job less stressful. And yet, when someone in the office remarks that Da-mi is overqualified for the job, we learn that even with all her advantages, she will struggle. Rather than seeing her as over-qualified, the director sees Da-mi as a loser. Grad students only go back to school, he says, because they can’t get jobs. In this world of precarity and austerity even the elite have trouble navigating the competitive work world.
Not only is Mi-rae stressed out by this competition and her icy co-workers, but she, like the rest of the office, suspects that Mr. Kim is hiding out in the ceiling of the building. The police have seen from CCTV footage that after he murdered his family Mr. Kim went straight to the office building, but the camera never recorded his emergence. Detective Jong-hoon suspects he is still there, but his superiors at the police station align with the corporate heads of the company to keep the incident quiet by refusing to seriously investigate it. As a consequence, Mr. Kim begins picking off the co-workers who tormented him while he worked there. They are easy targets since everyone at the office frequently ends up working late at night by themselves.
Like Mi-rae and Mr. Kim, Detective Jong-hoon is serious about his job. This self-seriousness means he fails at acting appropriately casual and ingratiatingly towards his bosses and co-workers. This rigidity leads him to resist his superiors’ complicity with the corporation. Instead he yields to the temptation to pursue his instincts which keep leading back to Mi-rae. Even as he suspects her of hiding something, though, he also identifies with her.
One night, he intercepts her while she works late at the office and drives her home. Noticing her long commute and the slum-tenement where she is forced to live, he deduces that she is from the provinces, showing that not only is she from a lower social class but that she has been brought up outside the “cosmopolitan” culture of Seoul. Still, she doesn’t have an accent that betrays her origins. During their conversation Mi-rae reveals that since middle school, she has studiously worked to shed the outer signs that would mark her as working class and provincial, training herself to speak without her rural accent. And yet, while she can drop the accent, it is much more difficult to navigate the subtle and confusing norms of cosmopolitan office etiquette. To detective Jong-hoon, she confesses that she does identify with Mr. Kim, the only person in the office who shared her oddball status and didn’t reject her for this lack of finesse.
At this point we don’t know how far this identification goes. But we do know that Mr. Kim’s outsider-status led him to slaughter his family and now he is set on murdering the co-workers who have rejected and humiliated him. The first co-worker Mr. Kim kills is Jae-il, an arrogant man but one who, like the rest of Chein’s employees, himself suffers from the strains of low pay and long hours. Just before he is executed, we hear him talking on the phone to his girlfriend explaining that they can’t get married because he doesn’t have enough money to buy a home in Seoul. Thanks to Mr. Kim’s vengeful backlash, it turns out he will soon leave this world of thwarted love and soaring real estate prices. But death does seem to be the only way out.
The next day, Chein’s corporate leaders hold a meeting with the director, urging him to keep news of Mr. Kim quiet. But as they are talking in the conference room, Jae-il’s body plunges through the ceiling, hanging by a noose. Even though everyone suspects Mr. Kim is responsible, the corporate leaders conspire with the cops to deem Jae-il’s death a suicide and take detective Jong-Hoon off the case, asserting that image is everything for the company.
Meanwhile, Mi-rae’s problems at the office escalate. Her co-workers become more overtly hostile toward her, comparing her unfavorably to the newer, more sophisticated intern and ridiculing her behind her back. She realizes that she will not get promoted to full-time, and the company is just stringing her along until her rival is trained.
When her co-worker, Chae-eun catches her crying in the bathroom she plainly states Mi-rae’s problem. That is, she is terrible at performing the affective labor required of her:
You try too hard…don’t try to be so good. Don’t show your zeal too much, that decreases your identity in the company…When we see you working so desperately, we wonder if its lack of confidence or if you’re hiding something…feels a bit pitiful. So just go with the flow, not always so strict. You’re a kind person and feels a bit like Mr. Kim.
This speech gets at the ironies of an age of emotional labor, where appearing to work hard is taboo, and all sorts of byzantine gender and class codes create hidden hierarchies within the workplace and society at large. As Sianne Ngai argues, affective labor demands a delicate balancing act that require the simultaneous performance of trustworthiness, friendship, and unflappability, and I would add that these subtle shades of performance generally require a lifetime of training and grooming.[v]
This workplace demand for complex emotional labor is a kind of feminization that doubly affects working class women like Mi-rae. As Nan Yeoung Park Matthews argues, woman office workers in S. Korea have always been demeaned as decorative carers, dubbed “flowers of the office.”[vi] Even as women have been integral to S. Korea’s rapid development, they have arguably not been truly integrated into the corporate world, but rather have had their lower status exploited as they serve as “cheap and easily expendable labor.”[vii] But as we see from Mi-rae’s identification with Mr. Kim and Jong-hoon, this feminized denigration and exploitation of emotional and physical labor does not only affect women, but, as precarity and austerity expands, it affects all workers. As Hae Kyung Sohn et al argue, Korean jobs increasingly demand emotional labor that leads to burnout, stress, frustration, emotional dissonance, depersonalization, and exhaustion, among other costs.[viii] And of course, this is in no way limited to the S. Korean national context. It is part and parcel with what Heather Hicks calls “soft work,” work that is “performed in an economy sustained by software, soft bodies, and soft management techniques.” In our current socioeconomic context, “the signifiers of economic production… and those of femininity” are aligned.[ix] And yet those emotional demands which on the surface seem “soft” have become hardened and rationalized rules of the workplace.
Emotional labor is often thought of as the performance of friendliness, cheerfulness, and care. But Office shows that the “deep acting” required in the workplace goes beyond these legible demands. Such behaviors as effortless calm and aggressive chumminess are often demanded in the white-collar world, but these qualities are inculcated by one’s class, gender, and racial background. As one study of women in the English advertising industry noted, unspoken norms around “masculine banter” and “masculine social interactions” exclude women, even when there are no visible barriers to women’s participation.[x]
Many who study these affective norms and exclusions in the workplace turn to Bourdieu’s theory of “habitus” as a way to explain the performative demands on employees. In this model, affective requirements are not explicitly stated, but integrated into everyday practices that naturalize and reproduce inequality. To Bourdieu this becomes a “symbolic violence, a gentle violence, imperceptible and invisible even to its victims.”[xi] Mi-rae suffers at the hands of this violence as she fails to perform the impossible balancing act (for those not born to it) of rigorous endless work coupled with the appearance of casual, easy-going detachment. Mi-rae, like Mr. Kim before her, is doomed to a life of belittlement and denigration as all her earnest hard work is received as tactless.
But no one can really teach Mi-rae the rules of this game. Years of training as well as freedom from economic and social stress are required to perform effortlessness. As the intern Da-mi proves, there is no way to compete with “class members who “absorb ‘class rules as unspoken, socially valid practices that are largely invisible to them”[xii] These invisible rules are a self-fulfilling prophecy, determining hierarchies that leave little room for an individual’s meritocratic rise in the ranks. And yet, workers are taught to believe in meritocracy, and so often internalize their own failures, seeing something deeply flawed in the very essence of their personality and behavior.[xiii]
In the past these feelings of inadequacy might be something that could be escaped when one goes home after work hours, but the affective demands of work in the age of the “social factory”—an expression to capture how labor that once seemed contained in particular productive work spaces has now expanded to every area of life— are so immersive that work, as Franco Barardi argues, captures our very “soul,” demanding and instrumentalizing our attention, language, creativity, and affects.[xiv] In other words, we are encouraged, as Sarah Jaffe has argued, to pour our “love” and libidinal energy into work, leaving little of us left over for ourselves.[xv]
As these stresses ratchet up, Mi-rae remembers an encounter with Mr. Kim where he explains the origin of the knife that she now carries around in her briefcase. He reminds her of an affiliate who had hung himself in his shop. Mr. Kim feels responsible because the dead man had called him just before his suicide, begging for help, but Mr. Kim didn’t take his call. The man sent him the knife before offing himself and Mr. Kim then kept it as a kind of calming talisman. He describes the knife’s soothing effects: “It completely vaporizes the stress piled up. This is like a rosary to me.” He tries to pass the knife along to Mi-rae, who he sees as a kindred outsider. But Mi-rae fights against this identification, rejecting the cursed “gift.”
Now, however, the knife seems to follow her wherever she goes. As her co-workers become crueler—a violence they pass on as the director pours vitriol and shame on them—the knife holds more and more magnetism for Mi-rae. We are no longer certain who is killing her co-workers in the dark corners of the late-night office. After her direct superior, Ms. Hong, finally quits in response to the director’s abuse, he texts her to return to the workplace, apologizing and promising her a promotion. When she returns, though, she is attacked in the bathroom by an unseen man, who stabs her over and over. After the murder, the man morphs into Mi-rae, suggesting she and Mr. Kim have become one.
When she comes “out” as the killer, Mi-rae’s whole demeaner transforms. Up until now she was the picture of abjection. Constantly hunched over, bowing, and apologizing, she never looked a co-worker in the eyes. She rushed around with small timid steps, trying to do everything and disappear at once. But as the killer, a look of calm imperviousness washes over her. She is small in stature and could easily be overcome by the next two workers that she attacks, but her typical meekness gives her the element of surprise. When she refuses to respond to their questions, Eun-yi slaps her, spitting out, “You’re just an intern. You’re finished. Understand?” In response, Mi-rae calmly goes to her desk, grabs her stapler, and uses it to bash in her co-worker’s head. She then goes after Eun-yi’s boyfriend Won-suk, but detective Jong-hoon bursts in before either of them can best the other. The scenario the detective witnesses, however, suggests that Won-suk was himself the killer, and before anything can be explained, the detective shoots him in the head. In this unlikely mistake, we wonder if he, too, is unconsciously channeling Mr. Kim, the spirit of class resentment that haunts every aspect of the work world.
In her struggle with Won-suk, Mi-rae is badly hurt but survives. In a coda to the film, we see that she is healed and is on her way to another job interview. It seems that no exploitative internship is safe from the spirit of the “Hammer Killer”— a specter of androgynous class vengeance that will continue to haunt the soul-crushing regime of affective labor.
Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. Her book Stepford Daughters: Tools for Feminists in Contemporary Horror is forthcoming from Common Notions Press. She is the author of The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books, has published widely in academic and popular journals, and runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films. More info can be found here: https://mjc.academia.edu/JoIsaacson
[i] “’Gwarosa’: why Koreans are working themselves to death,” The Week, November 5, 2018, https://www.theweek.co.uk/97569/gwarosa-why-koreans-are-working-themselves-to-death
[ii] Kim Jaewon, “South-Korea’s Work-Life Imbalance,” Nikkei Asia, December 17, 2016, https://asia.nikkei.com/Economy/South-Korea-s-work-life-imbalance2
[iii] Juwon Park, “South Korea’s Rigid Work Culture Trickles Down to Young Startups,” Korea Expose, December 22, 2017, https://www.koreaexpose.com/south-korea-rigid-work-culture-startups/
[iv] Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy (Polity, 2011).
[v] Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories, 198.
[vii] Park Matthews, Development, Culture, 9.
[viii] Hae-Kyung Sohn, Timothy J. Lee, and Yoo-Shik Yoon, “Emotional Labor and Burnout: Comparison between Countries of Japan and Korea,” Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing, 33, no. 5 (2016): 599.
[ix] Heather Hicks, The Culture of Soft Work: Labor, Gender, and Race in Postmodern American Narratives, (Palgrave: 2009), 3.
[x] Martina Topic, “It’s something that you should go to HR about’ – Banter, Social Interactions and Career Barriers for Women in the Advertising Industry in England,” Employee Relations, The International Journal, (December 2020).
[xi] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 1.
[xii] Barbara Gray and Jennifer J. Kish-Gephart, “Encountering Social Class Differences at Work: How ‘Class Work’ Perpetuates Inequality,” Academy of Management Review, 38, no. 4, 671.
[xiii] Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination, 682.
[xiv] Berardi, Franco. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (Semiotext(e), 2009).
[xv] Sarah Jaffe, Work Won’t Love You Back, (Bold Type Books: 2021).