NEXT SOHEE (2022)
July Jung finally returns eight years after her debut masterpiece, as a high school student struggles under the insufferable workplace pressure of her first corporate job
Busan International Film Festival 2022
Trevor Treharne, 7 October
In music it is known by the cliché of the 'difficult second album' – the weight of expectation to follow-up a debut hit with more of the same. For director July Jung – who wowed with her brave and engrossing ‘A Girl at My Door’ in 2014 – has perhaps only succeeding in building more suspense with her lengthy hiatus.
Fortunately, many of the elements which made ‘A Girl at My Door’ so compelling return in ‘Next Sohee’. While the former tackled Korea’s muted voice on LGBTQ rights, here the nation’s famously brutal work culture and its impact on young people is in Jung’s crosshairs.
Inspired by a true story that Jung saw about a high school girl, the title character Sohee (Kim Si-eun) is an ultimately affable girl marbled with a short-temper. As she approaches graduation, she focuses on her dance group achievements, before landing an externship at an internet provider's call centre.
Despite its billing as a prized job, the working conditions are dire. Long hours, an environment of bullying, while the pay of externs is a fraction of normal wages. Disillusioned and prone to outbursts, Sohee finds herself drowning in the corporate world of unrealistic targets and demands.
The practices of the company eventually attract the attention of Detective Oh Yu-jin, with Bae Doona (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, The Host) – who starred in Jung’s first film – playing the role of police enforcer once again.
The debate over the Korean workplace culture has been punctuated with several real-life cases of young people succumbing to the toils of such an environment. ‘Next Sohee’ continues what 2019’s ‘Light for the Youth’ did in translating such concerns to the screen. What Jung manages to achieve here is highlight such issues in a manner that never seems preachy.
It also unpacks the frustrations in attempting to unpick or challenge such working practices. For Korea, this approach is now historical, systemic and supported from above all the way to the government.
In many ways a sequel of sorts to her first film, complete with Bae Doona playing a marginalised police officer, ‘Next Sohee’ is another taut exploration of modern Korean life. Jung has this knack for the slow-build character deconstruction, often framed in open rural spaces or by reflective lakes.
The pressure put on Korea’s extern community – mere high schoolers being asked to break their back for an indifferent corporation – will likely strike a chord locally. However, this appears to be an international phenomenon, as evidenced by the current ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘act your wage’ movements where young people are now fulfilling their job descriptions and nothing else.
While Bae Doona is predictability brilliant, Kim Si-eun manages to perfectly pitch Sohee, who is strong and feisty, but also highly sensitive and reflective.
Our hope is that Jung has caught that directorial bug again and our next wait is not eight years. She seemingly has too many important things to say about society to be so patient.