The character of Kim So-hee, played by Kim Si-eun, is an impulsive, hot-tempered high school student whose passion is dancing. The film opens with So-hee, in an empty dance studio, practicing over and over again to master a choreography.
But this free spirit gradually collapses as she begins an internship at a grueling call center, part of her school’s curriculum, despite studying pet care. So-hee, nevertheless, tries to remain hopeful so as to not disappoint the adults in her life -- her teacher, boss and parents -- because she knows there is no turning back. Otherwise, she will be red-tagged at school.
She works hard. So-hee’s job is to stop angry customers who want to cancel their subscriptions from doing so. She is evaluated by her numerical output, just like her co-workers, also high schoolers.
The job is demanding for So-hee. Spending more than nine hours at a call center office filled with claustrophobic cubicle booths, So-hee repeats the same lines and is subject to verbal abuse from callers. She’s been told to intentionally delay calls and pass on the customers to her co-workers to milk as much cash from them as possible before finally processing their cancellations.
So-hee asks for help, but adults tell her to just endure.
So-hee does not have the protection of a contract: Rather, her position as an intern makes her vulnerable to exploitation for cheap labor. All she can do is drown her sorrows in soju and beer.
The first half of the film ends with So-hee ending her own life.
While director July Jung clearly portrays the capitalist system’s hold on the country’s education system, the film’s remaining half is led by detective Oh Yoo-jin (Bae Doo-na) who follows So-hee’s case and reveals the real cause of her death, confronting institutions like schools and companies that profit off youths’ labor.
Like many stories of this kind, pinpointing one culprit is not easy. Is the company which exploits young people’s passion for cheap labor responsible for this? Or is it the school that is negligent in students’ struggles, only obsessed with sending more students to internships? The parents who were in the dark? The Labor Ministry, Education Ministry? Yoo-jin, in her quest for truth, gets fed up with the blame game between the adults.
“Is this a school or an employment agency?” Yoo-jin asks a teacher, simmering in fury.
In the wake of So-hee’s death, adults continue to blame the victim.
“She just went quietly,” says the last person who saw So-hee alive, which is the reality of many Korean youths who suffer in silence.
Toward the end, Yoo-jin approaches Tae-joon, a close friend of So-hee, and tells him that if anything happens to him, he should come talk to her. Tae-joon bursts into tears saying “thank you.” Yoo-jin must have been the first adult to have said that to Tae-joon.
July Jung’s new project in nine years, “Next Sohee” is based on a true event -- a high school student who took her own life after a grueling job training program at a call center in 2017.
“I know it is too late to talk about the case at this point, but it’s only because I did not know (about the case) until recently. I thought that maybe I was part of the society which made this kind of event repeat itself. That’s what I thought when I was making this project, and even today,” Jung told reporters during a press conference held in CGV Yongsan, Tuesday.
As the title suggests, “Next Sohee” asks if there will be another So-hee and whether similar cases will continue to occur.
“When we were in middle of the shooting, there was a news report of a student doing an externship at this subcontracted company dying in an accident. He died while he was doing work underwater to remove shells from a yacht,” Jung said, adding that such cases soon became forgotten despite apologies from the president and education minister.
Actor Bae Doo-na said she was fascinated by everything about the film, including the story and the theme.
“It was definitely a difficult film to act. Without sensitive acting, I knew that the audience would feel bored,” Bae told reporters.
“Next Sohee” is also a debut film for rookie actor Kim Si-eun whose calm acting shines throughout the film.
The film was screened in May last year at the Cannes Film Festival and received a seven-minute standing ovation. It also won the best director award at the 26th Fantasia International Film Festival and was picked as the closing film. It also received three awards at the Amiens International Film Festival.
“Next Sohee” will be released in local cinemas on Feb. 8.