The success of the 2010 movie ‘The Man From Nowhere’ (아저씨) spawned a fair few imitations in its wake, notably ‘Man of Vendetta’ (파괴된 사나이) made the same year, & ‘The Beast’ (짐승) made the following year, both of which paled in comparison. Last years ‘A Company Man’ had many people also drawing comparisons to the Won Bin outing, not to mention ‘A Bittersweet Life’ (달콤한 인생), thanks to a promotional poster and storyline that seemed a little too familiar. However ‘A Company Man’ had something going for it the other movies didn’t, and that was the draw of having So Ji-sub (‘Rough Cut’ 영화는 영화다) in the starring role, a sign for most people that the production could hold some potential.
The movie is written and directed by Lim Sang-yoon in what is his first directorial solo outing, having previously been the assistant director on the movie ‘Old Garden’ (오래된 정원), and tells the story of contract hitman Hyung Do, played by Ji-sub. The spin on the traditional hitman tale is that he works for a corporate company, using a front of metal manufacturing (a possible nod to the character Robert De Niro plays in the movie ‘Heat’, who also pretends to work in metal manufacturing), whose business is contract killing.
Being the number 1 hitman around, Ji-sub has some influence in the company, and is even due for promotion soon. So when he suggests bringing in a temp (in the literal sense of the word!) to help complete his current hit, the management agree on the basis that he also eliminates him once the job is done. Kim Dong-jun of idol group ZE:A plays the role of the temp marking his acting debut, and of course being So Ji-sub, it turns out that underneath his cool and calculating exterior, he has a heart of gold, and he lets him live. However much like he found himself in the same predicament in ‘Rough Cut’, once his superiors find out that his mark is still alive, things don’t bode well.
Despite putting the corporate twist on the world of contract killing, there’s no denying that the story has been done many times before, and yes you’d be right in thinking of ‘A Bittersweet Life’, so it needs to have something more for it to really stand out. Sadly, while the technical aspects of the movie elevate things, the plot ends up dragging it further down. Ji-sub winds up meeting Dong-jun’s mother, played by Lee Mi-yeon, here making her first movie role since 2007's ‘Love Exposure’ (어깨너머의 연인), and as it turns out, it’s revealed she used to be a teen idol. This revelation comes a little left of field, but it only gets worse when it’s revealed Ji-sub used to listen to her music all the time when he was young, and a flashback scene ensues of a young Ji-sub riding his bicycle with his headphones in listening to her music.
This is the crux of the plot, and is supposed to establish the beginning of a possible romantic connection between Ji-sub and Mi-yeon, unfolding the tale between a contract killer who attempted to murder the son of a former idol who he used to be the biggest fan of. If it sounds clumsy, it’s not delivered on screen much better, and it fails to convince when it matters the most, which is the point were we as an audience invest in the story. Sang-yoon stumbles on his changes of tone as well, we spend the first third of the movie in Ji-sub’s cold detached world, then suddenly we have a montage of him leaving and entering his apartment in a constantly changing variety of clothes. It was so jarring that it actually took me a minute to realize that it was the movies attempt at comedy, displaying Ji-sub’s indecisiveness at what to wear for a date with Mi-yeon.
While the plot and the pacing display all the signs of a first time writer and director biting off more than he can chew, the one part of the movie which does stand out is the action scenes. Incorporating some very fluid and innovative camerawork, backed up with some solid hand to hand work from Ji-sub, Sang-yoon shows a very technically capable hand and shoots the action with flair. In his take-out of Dong-jun, a scuffle with a disillusioned employee, and a knife fight with one of his colleagues preceded by an attempted assassination in a moving car, the movie briefly springs to life and the scenes really bring an excitement which it so much needs. However a strange thing happens in the final action sequence, which takes part in the company office headquarters, and that is the slick camerawork disappears and instead the whole thing appears to be shot on a home video camera.
What should be an explosive catharatic finale looks almost like they ran out of budget and simply gave the actors some model guns and said shoot at each other. It’s a somewhat bewildering ending to what is really a bewildering movie. No doubt on paper the story may have read well, but I guess this is the problem when you direct your own script, and that is that you have no one to tell you if perhaps certain aspects of it don’t work. In this case, the whole concept of a killer falling for the idol he used to listen to after attempting to kill her son just didn’t click. I give the movie its dues for going a slightly different route, it’s unusual for a Korean production to have a protagonist like Ji-sub have a love interest who’s a single mother of two, but these individual touches are not enough to support the weak story.
As it is, ‘A Company Man’ will still be considered a second rate version of its more popular, and arguable superior predecessors like ‘A Bittersweet Life’ and ‘The Man From Nowhere’. So Ji-sub seems to be channeling Won Bin’s cool demeanor as displayed in ‘The Man From Nowhere’, even to the point that in both movies we get a scene of them ironing their shirt. However unlike Won Bin, Ji-sub forgets to interject any kind of emotion into his character, instead playing it cool, calm, and monotone all the way to the end of its mercifully short 95 minutes run time. Sang-yoon no doubt has potential as a director, it’s the writing and story which makes the movie come unstuck, so my hope is ‘A Company Man’ acts as a learning curve, and one day I’ll be writing about his fantastic second feature.
By Paul Bramhall
A Company Man recently screened at the Korean Cultural Office's weekly Korean film night. For more Korean cinema check out the 2014 Cinema on the Park screening schedule online now!