July Jung’s Next Sohee is a story told in two nearly equal halves. In the first half, high schooler Sohee (Kim Si-eun) is awarded an externship to work at a call center office. Conditions at the call center are tense and only get worse as Sohee tries to acclimate to a highly competitive environment and training which has her doing everything in her power to delay unhappy customers’ service cancellations.
As Sohee tries to weather the hostile work environment, she grows distant from her friends, suffers in school, and amplifies her alcohol consumption. When she hits the brink, the film fades to black and we switch perspectives to a detective (Bae Doona) trying to piece together the severely detrimental effects of this call center’s workplace climate.
Next Sohee is an exercise in emotional endurance. Its first hour is so slow and devastating, making the toxicity of the drab office floor inescapable. The drawn out heightening of depression and suicidal ideation is painful, and it pays dividends later on, providing emotional investment in the ensuing investigation.
This second half is almost clinical in its uncovering of the bureaucratic cover up and deflection of guilt at the corporate level. It is a less affecting stretch, but it leads to a passionate conclusion. And Kim performs so strongly in the first two acts that the ghost of her character carries on through the remainder of the film following her exit. The film is propelled by a desire to see justice be served on her behalf. The most talked about performance from Next Sohee will likely be Bae’s, understandably so, but I think Kim’s is what makes this film work.
The world of Korean externships is entirely foreign to me, so I cannot speak to its depiction here. But Jung has spoken on the troubling exploitation of real-world high school externships (Next Sohee is loosely based on a real incident at a call center). Jung’s film paints a chilling picture of this exploitation, which is shown here to be embedded in the firmament of the education and labor systems. All parties within the system deflect blame, and the memories of the victims are buried.
The first and final scenes (also, an emotionally gutting scene late in the film involving Sohee’s parents) involve the hobby of dance, of which Sohee is fond. They are two distinctly human moments that cut through the icy exploitative practices. Throughout the film, schools and companies consider laborers as statistics, measurements for success which determine profits, budgets, and financial incentives. Next Sohee takes this callousness to task through simple, elegant expressions of humanity. It is this balance between cold- and warm-hearted moments that make the film powerful.
Next Sohee: B+
As always, thanks for reading!
—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)