Jung Ju-ri’s “Next Sohee” is cleaved in half by a tragic death. Indeed, the incident at the center of Jung’s sobering South Korean drama is so shocking that it tilts what initially bills itself like a workplace drama into a full-blown investigative thriller, replete with whistleblowers, unhelpful witnesses, and, true to that genre, a wearied detective eager to solve a case no one else seems all that bothered by. This incongruence between two halves could be cause to concern in less skilled hands. Jung instead binds the two halves together and makes bold claims for criminal negligence at the root of modern exploitative labor practices.
But before “Next Sohee” takes us on its murder investigation story arc, it introduces us to its eponymous protagonist. Jung’s title may be reducing Sohee (a wide-eyed Kim Si-eun) to one in a long list — there will be many others like her — but when we first meet the young high schooler she’s brimming with energy, concentrated on the task at hand: a choreographed dance she’s rehearsing all by herself. The film opens with her unguarded joy. It is also what’s slowly going to disappear both from her life and from “Next Sohee” altogether.
Sohee must put aside her hobbies. Instead, she should be focusing on her internship at a local phone center. Her employment, part of her school’s curriculum, is designed to help her get hands-on experience in the workforce. This seems like a great fit at first. Sohee is a young, driven woman who almost gets hired right away and clearly wants to succeed. It is only once she begins to see how grueling the demands of the job are that she begins to fear how she’ll make it through week to week. There are angry customers to please and quotas that must be met. She has understood from day one that the former is infinitely more important than those of the latter.
Jung paints a portrait about a gamified capitalist system in the first half of his film. Jung reduces all the young girls who call the call center every day to their numerical output which is displayed in large charts and tables for everyone to see. There is no worker, only the work done. Here is the alienation of labor reduced to “dissuasion” and “cancellation” metrics. Every girl is disposable, even if her job demands are not met. Jung, who was inspired to write and direct this film after reading about a young girl’s suicide while working at one of these call centers, highlights the insidious way in which companies have rebuilt entire industries to further disempower workers and leverage, instead, their power over contractors who have little to no protections.
Sohee’s job may be at the center of the film, but Jung makes it clear that her fate is not an isolated one. Capitalism thrives on despair. And once “Next Sohee” twists and turns itself into a police investigation following a seemingly straightforward suicide case, Jung’s interests in the larger questions such deaths provoke become clear. As detective Yoo-jin (a gripping Bae Doona), herself dealing with a job that’s left her frayed, begins following leads on what might’ve happened at the call center, she uncovers an entire system designed to shirk responsibility to the individual. Charts and metrics, quotas and incentives leave everyone admitting they’re hopeless when it comes to the damaging choices they force workers to make: Schools need to place students lest they lose funding; companies need to make quotas lest they lose investments; and so on and so forth. Sohee and others like her are just cogs in an unintended machine that is not designed to support real people with wishes, needs, or hobbies (like dancing).
Amid such a bleak and slow burn of a premise, Jung’s “Next Sohee” is surprisingly warm-hearted. The empathy that contractors like Sohee are denied in their workplace is kindly offered by Jung’s camera and by the care she takes in giving their story a much-needed spotlight. Where others may have reduced Sohee to her tragic demise, Jung’s focus on her humanity — the dances she shared with her dance crew, the meals she let her best friend livestream, even the fights she got into while defending friends — make that second half of the film pack an even greater punch. The direction, unshowy and workmanlike as it may be, keenly gets out of the way of the very humane story it’s telling. And, indeed, what we’re left with are two vivid performances that together anchor Jung’s indictment of a system that isn’t so much broken as it is working as intended.
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