Next Sohee: an intelligent critique of South Korean work culture

A talented student is given an exploitative internship at a call centre in an insightful workplace drama from July Jung that stumbles in its second half.

Bae Doona as Yoo-jin in Next Sohee (2022)

You can glean a lot of wisdom from a three-minute folk song: Bob Dylan’s ‘Who Killed Davey Moore?’ (1963) is a case in point. Drawing on the recent death of Moore, a featherweight boxer who succumbed to injuries sustained in the ring, each verse summons a different stakeholder – manager, referee, journalist, viewer – who defiantly dodges responsibility for Moore’s demise. The lesson is clear: everyone is to blame, so no one is.

The song came to mind toward the end of July Jung’s Next Sohee, which is set not in the sweaty milieu of post-war pugilism but in the washed-out world of white-collar drudgery. The film takes a similarly methodical approach to apportioning guilt, and is equally anguished about the slipperiness of culpability. Structured around the consecutive suicides of two employees of a call-centre company in Jeonju, South Korea, and charting the buck-passing and corporate evasions that ensue, the movie maps a system that prizes economic relations above human ones, and throws up its hands at the grim conclusion: you can’t put a system on trial.

Kim Sohee (Kim Si-eun), a star pupil at a life sciences school near Jeonju, has a talent for veterinary medicine and a passion for dance. When one of her professors informs her that he’s secured her a sought-after internship, she’s grateful and enthused, though alarm bells are already sounding for the viewer: the name of Sohee’s new employer, Human & Net, has the ring of sci-fi dystopia, and the company her teacher has assured her is a fully fledged subsidiary is in fact a subcontractor, one of a network of call centres desperate to please the telecoms giant in whose name they operate.

For stretches of the film’s first half, the screen cleverly plays host to the greyscale tedium of an anonymous software interface: we follow the ups and downs of Sohee’s performance through boxes recording ‘dissuasion’ and ‘cancellation’ rates on her computer screen as she attempts to talk people out of cancelling their broadband deals. When she explodes over the phone at a caller who begins sexually harassing her, team manager Jun-ho (Sim Hee-seop) – who is set strict targets himself but is riddled with guilt at his complicity in the exploitation of the interns (who are all women) – reacts philosophically. Soon afterwards, he takes his own life in the car park, leaving a suicide note that doubles as a whistleblowing account of sham employment contracts, deferred payments and corporate malfeasance.

Bae Doona as Yoo-jin in Next Sohee (2022)

When another employee kills herself, Jung switches to procedural mode, introducing Yoo-jin (Bae Doona), a jaded detective who comes to suspect that this ostensibly open-and-shut case is a matter of criminal negligence. It’s at this point that the film suffers a puncture. The visual concision of the first half, which made such eloquent use of a computer monitor and so artlessly evinced the airlessness of low-level corporate offices, gives way to a protracted denouement in which the detective confronts the culpable parties one after another: the subcontractor, the school, the district office incentivising the school to place interns. Jung’s reliance on shot/reverse-shot editing becomes distracting, each scene filmed like the preceding one. Over 137 minutes, the faltering cinematic imagination begins to stultify.

Films of two halves have been popular on the festival circuit of late. Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Beasts, which premiered at Cannes in 2022, similarly pivots from threat-laden workplace drama (this one set in rural Galicia) to detective story following the death of a key character; while it managed the transition better, it also struggled to live up to its first section, in which characters and environments are built rather than retrospectively examined. Like that film, Next Sohee is concerned with the dangers of economic precarity in a distinct national setting. Jung is evidently haunted by the fact that her country has the highest suicide rate of any country in the OECD. Many of the issues her movie explores are especially South Korean: the massive over-representation of girls in exploitative work, the lack of openness around mental health problems, binge drinking.

But there are lessons to be drawn from the film in the UK, at a time when the value of education is seen increasingly in terms of employment prospects and economic productivity. Amid the Korean dialogue, the words ‘incentive’, ‘commission’ and ‘internship’ crop up in English. Now what does that tell us about Anglo-Saxon culture?

Next Sohee is in UK cinemas now.