A young man, named Hochan, living with his family gets an office job to pay the bills. He doesn't consider his cubicle job the first step in a career path, but his dad is a crippled retiree and his brother is still in school, so he and his mother bear the burden of bringing home the proverbial bacon. At first, he integrates himself rather well; he engages with his co-workers, learns the shortcuts of the office (like how to work the finicky copier/printer), and is promised an official, more permanent (and higher-paying) position by his superior. Then the "higher-ups" ignore his boss's recommendation, and fill the position with a company newcomer: a chipper, attractive young lady who instantly charms the pants off of everyone in the office. From the instant she enters the office, the momentum Hochan was just beginning to build up at work is squashed, and he becomes more and more resentful and miserable as he and his work are ignored while the new girl is heaped with positive reinforcement and approval right in front of his face. All of this is made even worse by the fact that Hochan never even considered the job permanent, and is stuck between keeping his occupation at arm's length and taking it seriously enough to advance and make more money for his family.
Yong-Seung Lee's movie is a small-scale, naturalistic dramedy, much more about evoking the environment of the soul-crushing, mind-numbing office environment than it is about any pretentious, intellectual statements on the scene or the character. In that sense, the film's a great success. While it never even approaches the high points of that benchmark of office comedies, OFFICE SPACE, much of it hits right on the mark, from the weird, tenuous relationships between Hochan and his new co-workers to the cliched, but universally relatable battles with the ever-faulty printer/copier. It's a South Korean movie, but we've all had experiences like these, and internalize them like a pro pretty much every time; Lee and lead actor Jong-Hwan Baek's big win is that anyone can can identify with what Hochan goes through, elevating his tension beyond mere occupational annoyance to that sort of silent, spirit-killing devastation that many of us can identify with.
Hochan is a quiet, subdued character for the most part, but with his staging, editing, and lackadaisical pacing, Lee's able to convey his internal misery wonderfully. Baek never emotes or overacts, and only clues us into his bubbling internal rage with his eyes and subtle body language. As Hochan starts to phone in his work, and starts removing himself from the inter-office social circle, he doesn't have much dialogue, but the camera and Baek's performance keep us tuned into the character's inner turmoil even as his coworkers breeze past him in ignorance.
The pitch-perfect replication of the office environment is both the film's strongest asset and its greatest flaw. At times, it feels like we're punching a clock right alongside Hochan, and the naturalistic style doesn't allow for any sort of exciting, punchy visuals. Nothing happens all of a sudden, and the slow-burn comedy sometimes takes a little too much time getting to where its going. Still, it's an insightful, identifiable, and consistently funny comedy about finding that place between making sure there's food on the table and giving up everything you wanted to be for a quick buck.
HOLBROOK/TWAIN: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY
A title card at the end of HOLBROOK/TWAIN: AN AMERICAN ODYSSEY informs us that Hal Holbrook has been performing his Mark Twain Tonight! for 60 years, probably making it the longest running one-man show with the same actor in the history of theater. That includes contemporary productions, Elizabethan plays, and even Ancient Greece.
Think about that for a second.
Forget about the fact that he's performed for 5 sitting U.S. presidents, and audiences in all 50 states. He's inhabited an individual role for over half a century. Not only that, but at 88 years old, he shows no signs of stopping. As his assistant says, "If he stops, he'll probably die."
The examination of Holbrook's journey playing the character over the course of the last 60 years fuels Scott Teems' documentary, a black-and-white look at the legendary actor and his scientific approach to inhabiting one of the most famous literary figures of U.S. history.
Through interviews with the actor, his children, several actors he's worked with (including Emile Hirsch, Martin Sheen, and Sean Penn), and Twain experts, we gain an appreciation for Holbrook's devotion to Twain, his writings, and the sacrifices he had to make to get up there and do the thousands of performances he has under his belt. He diligently chooses which pieces to perform (no two shows are exactly the same), does his own makeup, and gamely treks from town to town with only his costume, makeup, and experience in tow.
The film is a remarkably insightful, emotional experience. We hear about the conception of the show (which was originally a two-er with Twain and an interviewer, played by Hal's then-wife), Holbrook's joy at landing a spot on Ed Sullivan, his regret over not being more present as a parent when he would tour the country, and his undying admiration for the author and his sentiments. He, and the interview subjects who've seen the show, rightly proclaim that a lot of Twain's anti-government, anti-establishment, pro-individualist ideas are as relevant as ever over 100 years after his death.
Holbrook worked with Teems on a film called THAT EVENING SUN, and their relationship helps establish the intimacy that is this film's greatest assets. Teems gets the actor to open up to a remarkable extent, helped by the fact that Holbrook seems sharp as a tack for someone old enough to have served in WWII. His stories and views are funny, educational, and sometimes devastatingly touching. One section, where he talks about his terror before performing a race-related piece in civil-rights-era Mississippi, moved me and several other audience members (or at least the big guy sitting next to me) to tears. Other stories, such as his reflection over his recently departed wife and his recollection of his first Broadway reviews, are touching both for Holbrook's candor but also the natural, dignified emotion plastered on his face and permeating his voice. It's not quite a "performance" per se, but he's such an engaging, amiable, respectable gent that he makes what could've been an indulgent, nichey portrait into something intimate and deeply powerful.
I have never seen Mark Twain Tonight! on a stage, and considering Holbrook's age, it's very possible I never will. The closest I'll come (besides this film) is watching the CBS special from 50 years ago, from which clips are culled for the doc. But I could not possibly respect, revere, and admire Hal Holbrook's dedication to the role and his craft any more than I do now. He's won a Tony, an Emmy, and numerous other theater awards for his efforts, but I still feel that he's underappreciated for his efforts. The Twain scholars interviewed for the film note that he's done more to keep Twain's words and spirit alive for American culture than any other individual alive. I'd argue that this film is a similarly loving and educational tribute to Mr. Holbrook.