"That's the way it works in this business... You want out, and I want back in..."
Hyung-do (So Ji-sub) works as a professional assassin for a contract-killing company that uses metal trading as a cover for its true business.
While he is considered to be 'the best' in his profession and is progressing through the ranks, his repeated failure to carry out instructions verbatim - without explanation or apology, despite demands for both - increasingly grates with his immediate superior.
All the while beneath the surface, Hyung-do is less than happy in his work and unbeknownst to almost anyone is planning to escape his violent life; finally deciding the time has come on meeting beautiful ex-singer Su-yeon (Lee Mi-yeon) and falling in love.
However, he is fully aware that if he attempts to leave his violent career behind, the hunter will become the hunted...
To outside observers, Hyung-do (So Ji-sub) appears to be the archetypal company man. Always immaculately dressed, committed to his job - both for the good of his career and the company's reputation among its clients - and seemingly prepared to go the extra mile to cement his employer's perception of him as being the best in his field. However, look just a little closer and it's increasingly clear that the entire company set-up, as well as Hyung-do's place within it, are a world away from initial appearances:
For one thing, the company Hyung-do works for arranges and executes contract killings: for another, his growing disdain for his job as a whole, his frustration with inane and petty company bureaucracy, his abhorrence of jobs-worth superiors who have never had field experience - or even shot a gun outside a firing range - and his belief that many of the tasks and actions he is instructed to carry out come from inherently flawed plans lead him ever closer to the realisation that will set the course of his future.
Hyung-do wants out, plain and simple, and is determined that when the time is right he'll somehow find a way to leave his current situation behind once and for all and begin the normal life he so desperately yearns.
Attempting to do the 'right thing' in the wake of one of his 'jobs', Hyung-do meets ex-singer Su-yeon (Lee Mi-yeon) and, having been a fan of her music in the past, is instantly smitten. Her gentle simplicity and beauty add further to his growing feelings that a quiet life with her is the future he wants, needs and deserves and as the two invaraibly become closer, he decides the time has finally come to start afresh.
However, as already stated, in Hyung-do's line of work leaving is far from easy: The more he runs the more his work follows him home in violent style; this time with him and his loved ones as the targets.
Following a nail-biting early scene in which a company rookie undertakes a 'hit' while Hyung-do waits in a nearby car, we are taken to Hyung-do's place of work through the normal-looking above ground office 'front' that provides a semingly legitimate cover for the true nature of the business. In the compny 'nerve centre' below, each contract killing is arranged, meticulously planned and documented in triplicate from start to grizzly finish and almost immediately we see the first inklings of Lim Sang-yoon's intention for the film as a whole.
For, rather than creating simply a brutal action thriller teaming with visceral excitement, director Lim also endeavours to underpin the narrative with layers of biting social commentary throughout. Of course, the business Hyung-do and his colleagues are involved in could never be described as even close to normal but, aside from the killings themselves, the day-to-day office activities are deliberately detailed in a manner to which almost any office worker could relate; the focus being far more generic than specific to the murder game.
Clearly, Lim Sang-yoon was aiming his dissection to be of the work ethic and expectations impressed on Koreans domestically in the workplace, but it could in fact be considered to be critique of any career in any office environment in almost any democratic country.
However, in doing so it is necessary to go into intricacies at length and while that approach would likely work well in a less action-based film, in this case the intensely thrilling and perfectly choreographed fight/murder scenes (and, trust me, I'm not exaggerating in the least when I use the word 'thrilling') make the 'office' scenarios appear somewhat underwhelming by comparison; certainly more so than might otherwise been the case.
It almost goes without saying that the various plot and character elements of any given film narrative are the building blocks for both the ongoing story and its conclsion, but in A Company Man their culmination is ultimately of little surprise. Case in point: Hyung-do and his manager being at each other's throat during almost ever interation between them positively screams that they'll eventually come to blows and though in other hands an idea such as this could still have managed to remain unpredictable - to a degree at least - here as soon as it's clear that Hyung-do is to be hunted down the form of their final battle is frankly written for all to see. Add to that the fact that Hyung-do's love for Su-yeon blossoms in parallel with the company's efforts to dispose of him and, especially considering the almost obligatory melodramatic tendencies of Korean cinema, it's virtually impossible not to see what lies ahead long before it actually transpires.
Sad to say, the predictability of the above ideas has a knock-on effect to the rest of the story too and I for one was all the more aware of where each narrative thread was likely to (and did) end up, as a direct result.
As far as the burgeoning yet understated love between Hyung-do and Su-yeon is concerned, the emotional resonance they supposedly feel isn't really given the chance to get off the ground to any degree and though there are moments where chemistry between So Ji-sub and Lee Mi-yeon is indeed apparent the narrative never affords them the opportunity to capitalise on it.
Their relationship and combined character arc will have been seen numerous times before by any fan of Korean cinema - in terms of both the overall storyline and its outcome - and as I watched their story progress I sincerely and repeatedly hoped it would at some point take an unexpected turn... Sadly, it didn't.
A final niggle, from a personal point of view, is the use of the subplot involving the police - having an increasing part to play through the first half of the film, they suddenly disappear without word or reason for the large part of the remaining narrative; only to reappear (just as suddenly) in the very latter stages of the story claiming that they've just discovered new evidence. The reason for this is anyone's guess but it is rather jarring and forced, nonetheless.
At this point you may well be wondering if A Company Man has anything at all to recommend it. Well, to my mind, that depends on what you're really looking for. If you're in the mood for an easy to watch thriller with staggeringly good action sequences and a fairly engaging if familiar story, then it's certainly worth your time but if you prefer to be cerebrally challenged by a narrative it might be more advisable to look elsewhere.
Ultimately, A Company Man certainly has its moments and the action segments are without question superb - in both concept and realisation - but there is just no getting away from the fact that the film overall could have been so much more.
Cast: So Ji-sub, Lee Mi-yeon, Kwak Do-won, Lee Kyeong-yeong, Han Bo-bae
Superbly choreographed, perfectly realised action/fight sequences ultimately cannot hide A Company Man's narrative predictability and though director Lim Sang-yoon should indeed for credited for attempting a critique of company hierarchy, work ethics and expected loyalty, this dissection feels somewhat underwhelming by comparison.
The DVD edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) KD Media Limited Edition First Press version. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35.:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 and is well balanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
- ‘A Company Man’
- Director: Lim Sang-yoon
- Language: Korean
- Subtitles: English, Korean
- Country: South Korea
- Picture Format: NTSC
- Disc Format: DVD (Two Discs)
- Region Code: 3
- Publisher: KD Media
- Personnel Records (10:00)
- Action journal (7:00)
- Poster photo shoot (5:00)
- Premiere (5:00)
- Stills Gallery (2:00)
- Trailer (1:47)