Critics’ Week comes to a close with July Jung’s muted drama about teen suicide inspired by real-life events

Next Sohee

Source: Semaine de la Critique

‘Next Sohee’

Dir/scr: July Jung. South Korea. 2022. 138 mins

A high school student in Jeonju, South Korea, Sohee (Kim Si-eun) is initially thrilled by a paid work placement at a call centre servicing an internet service provider. But the grinding realities of the job, plus the death of a supervisor, start to drag her down until, finally, she takes her own life. The investigation into her death is headed up by detective Yoo-jin (Doona Bae), who has a personal connection to Sohee, and a tenacious approach to her job which enrages both her boss and the authorities who would rather not face the music. The two strong, complex central performances from Doona Bae and Kim Si-eun are considerable assets in this slow-burning exposé of workplace abuses and the cycles which perpetuate them. But while the journeys of each of the two main characters are interesting, the film does make rather heavy weather of it all, with a running time which is not entirely justified by the meandering dual stories that it tells.

Jung’s direction is unshowy but solid

This is the second feature from July Jung, whose first film, A Girl At My Door, premiered in Cannes 2014, in Un Certain Regard, and went on to win multiple awards at further festivals. This picture, which is loosely inspired by the real-life suicide of a girl on a similar “externship” program, should be of interest in the domestic market where the issue will be a talking point for audiences. Elsewhere, it is perhaps better suited to the festival circuit, where its leisurely pacing may not be such an issue.

Structurally, there are similarities with Souad by Ayten Amin, which also hands over the baton to a second character mid-way through. It’s a tricky sleight of hand to pull off when the audience has invested in the first main character. Both Souad and Next Sohee weave in the digital footprint left by the dead character to potent effect, but the absence of Sohee, a hot-tempered, impulsive free spirit who is gradually broken, is keenly felt in the second half of the picture. Fortunately, Doona is a compelling presence, her detective is impassive and inscrutable, but she too has wells of fury simmering within.

A keen dancer, Sohee is resigned to moving on from her hobby now that she has her foot on the first rung of the employment ladder. But the job is demanding and depressing, and, she soon realises, her position as an “extern” leaves her open to exploitation. The wage, as stated in the nebulous contract, is “subject to change”; the bonuses that she has earned will be paid at an unspecified later date. But if Sohee quits the job, she will return to her vocational high school in disgrace, awarded a “red tag” and forced to do menial tasks as a punishment for dragging down the school’s ratings. She hits the soju and beer in an attempt to blot out her impossible situation. Meanwhile Yoo-jin’s investigation, although dogged, is ultimately unsatisfying, revealing a network of buck-passing and self-interest rather than a single culpable act. The final impact of this muted drama suffers as a result.

Jung’s direction is unshowy but solid, with minimal score and a focus on persuasive performances captured by an empathetic lens. But her writing is less confident – this has the feel of a screenplay which could have benefited by a sharper focus and a leaner approach to its storytelling.

Production Company: Twinplus-Partners Co. Ltd., Crank-Up Film Co. Ltd

International sales: Finecut

Producers: Kim Dong-ha, Kim Ji-yeon

Cinematography: Kim Il-yeon

Editing: Young-lim Lee, Ji-youn Han

Production design: Choi Im

Music: Jang Young-gyu

Main cast: Doona Bae, Kim Si-eun