Toward the end of 2016, Korean filmmaker July Jung encountered a news story that got under her skin. A high-school girl had been sent by her school to work as an intern in a telecom company’s call center to gain real-world work experience, and within three months on the job she committed suicide. The investigative report revealed that the girl had experienced extraordinarily stressful working conditions in the call center and felt that she would be punished by her school if she were to quit the job.
“My first reaction was that I couldn’t really understand why people as young as high school students were being placed in such a poor working environment,” says Jung. “But as I learned more, it was clear that the school wasn’t just negligent in not knowing about the conditions, they were proactively pushing them to do work placements in these kinds of places.”
At that point, Jung says her interest in the story transitioned from curiosity to a form of “outrage” as she learned more and more facts about the case. That outrage would inform both the tone and structure of her second feature, Next Sohee.
“Through this film, I not only wanted to tell this story in all its details, but I wanted to attempt some cinematic experiments as well,” Jung says. “So that’s how we ended up with the story split in two parts — with the first half based on the actual incident, and the second half based around this fictional detective who investigates what happened.”
The first half of the film stars young actress Kim Si-eun as Sohee, a cheerful and determined high school girl who is sent by her school to complete a required internship in a telecom company’s call center, where she must field calls all day from furious customers complaining about the company’s aggressive sales tactics. Meanwhile, layers of bureaucracy within the company, her school and even her home life progressively enclose Sohee, giving her the sense that there is no potential relief or escape from her increasingly dispiriting circumstances — almost creating a horror-film-like quality of total claustrophobia, albeit via the methods of the thriller drama genre.
Once Sohee succumbs, the film turns to the story of police detective Oh Yoo-jin, who is tasked with what at first seems like a routine investigation of an unfortunate suicide. The detective is played with icy subtlety by Doona Bae, who also starred in the role of a detective in Jung’s debut feature, A Girl at My Door. July says Oh Yoo-jin’s arc is largely modeled on the director’s own experience with the story — from relative indifference to a righteous indignation bordering on obsession. In a sense, Bae becomes Jung’s avatar.
“Like myself, the detective character starts off as somebody who is not really all that knowledgeable about what these marginalized kids might be going through,” Jung says. “Like all of us, it’s so easy to overlook the exploitation happening around us — but as she encounters the facts, they become too outrageous to look away from.”
She adds: “I felt it was very important to have this second half of the film to give viewers a little relief and a little hope by showing that someone will get the bottom of this tragedy. It’s too late for Sohee, but someone will discover the people who are responsible before there is a next Sohee.”