I got chilled and then saddened as watching South Korean film “Next Sohee”. If you are horrified and infuriated by what is so painfully presented during its first half, I guarantee you that you will be more exasperated and disgusted as watching the second half, which presents a bigger picture surrounding the sad personal tale of systemic ignorance and exploitation during its first half. I must tell you that what is depicted in the film is a mere reflection of what is happening to those numerous disadvantaged young people out there in the South Korean society even at this point, and you will reflect more on this serious social issue once the movie is over.
The first half of the movie mainly revolves around Sohee (Kim Si-eun), an adolescent girl who is about to graduate from her vocational high school in my hometown Jeonju. Because she cannot afford to go to college, Sohee is expected to do some field job for more experience before graduating, and she is certainly ready when her supervisor teacher notifies her that she is going to work in a local call center as an apprentice. Once she signs those several contract papers, she instantly starts her first day at the call center, and it looks like everything will go pretty well for her during next several months before her graduation.
However, it does not take much time for Sohee to see how demanding and exploitative the work environment surrounding her and many other employees can be. Because I have heard a lot about those creepy callers who verbally abuse call center employees in one nasty way or another, I braced myself whenever I watched Sohee handling her latest call, and, as I already feared, many of those callers in the film are not so nice to say the least.
At least, Sohee and her colleagues have a decent manager who really cares about their work environment, but their manager is also in a very difficult position just like them. Because their department has shown less result than several other departments, the head of their department is quite displeased, and this prick frequently pressures not only the manager but also Sohee and her colleagues in humiliating ways. Sohee and her colleagues have no choice but to work overtime again and again, and their manager naturally becomes more morose about that as days go by.
In the end, there comes a sudden bad incident which shakes the whole department, but the head of the department demands Sohee and colleagues that they should keep working as usual without paying any attention to that incident in question. As a matter of fact, the company has already sent the new manager for them, in addition to forcing all of them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Despite being quite conflicted about what she has seen during last several weeks, Sohee tries to move on as much as possible, but she is reminded again and again of how she and her colleagues are unfairly treated by their company. The company surely promised to pay them some incentive at the beginning, but they always have excuses for not paying the incentive, and Sohee and her colleagues are still demanded to work more and more without any appreciation or reward.
After Sohee inevitably and tragically reaches to the breaking point around its first half, the movie shifts onto another main character during its second half. She is a female detective named Yoo-jin (Bae Doona), and she is not that particularly interested when the case involved with Sohee is handed to her, but then she comes to sense that there is something hidden behind the case. Although her direct supervisor prefers to close the case as soon as possible, Yoo-jin persistently delves into the case, and she comes to discover a number of very unpleasant things in addition to a little connection between her and Sohee.
Via Yoo-jin’s steady investigation along the plot, the movie gradually shows us how Sohee and many other young people are bound to be exploited from the very start. Their vocational schools are supposed to help them getting good jobs, but their teachers and supervisors only care about raising employment rates more for getting more fund from the Ministry of Education. They naturally throw their students into any menial job just for making their employment records good, and those companies closely connected with them have no problem with exploiting these young people who have many disadvantages besides their inexperience and poor economic status. To make matters worse, those officials in the Ministry of Education have willingly overlooked this unfair situation just because of their own benefits, and, not so surprisingly, Yoo-jin becomes all the more exasperated as coming to realize how rotten the system has been from the bottom to the top.
The screenplay by July Jung, who previously made a stunning feature debut with “A Girl at My Door”, sometimes falters a bit, but it mostly remains calm and sober on the whole, while also held well together by the strong performances from its two lead actresses. Kim Si-eun is simply devastating during many key scenes of hers, and her haunting performance effectively hovers around the film even after her character steps back from the center later in the story. On the opposite, Bae Doona, who already collaborated with Jung in “A Girl at My Door”, humbly carries the second half of the film without overshadowing Kim’s presence at all, and she deftly conveys to us her character’s muted but palpable anger and disgust toward those figures responsible for Sohee’s tragedy. In case of a number of substantial supporting performers in the movie, Jung Hoe-rin, Kang Hyeon-oh, Bahk Woo-young and Lee In-yeong are solid as Sohee’s close friends, and Park Hee-eun, Kim Yong-joon, Hwang Jung-min, Shim Hee-sub, and Choi Hee-Jin are also well-cast as several adult figures surrounding Sohee.
Overall, “Next Sohee” is another compelling work from Jung. While it is less complex and more straightforward than “A Girl at My Door” in terms of story and characters, the movie powerfully delivers its urgent social messages to audiences, and its sadly poignant last scene will linger on your mind for a long time along with the very title of the movie. Yes, there will be more young people to be exploited like Sohee, but we should not look away from them at all, regardless of whether we can actually change that deeply problematic system or not.