‘Next Sohee’ Review: Sobering South Korean Drama Tackles Labor Exploitation Head On

A high schooler’s experience at a grueling call center internship asks probing questions about the deadly sacrifices capitalism requires of us all.

Next Sohee

Jung Ju-ri’s “Next Sohee” is cleaved in half by a tragic death. Indeed, the incident at the center of Jung’s sobering South Korean drama is so shocking that it tilts what initially bills itself like a workplace drama into a full-blown investigative thriller, replete with whistleblowers, unhelpful witnesses, and, true to that genre, a wearied detective eager to solve a case no one else seems all that bothered by. The pairing of such incongruent two halves would, in lesser hands, be cause for worry. Instead, Jung sutures the two seamlessly and in so doing makes a bold case for the criminal malpractice at the heart of contemporary exploitative labor practices.

But before “Next Sohee” takes us on its murder investigation story arc, it introduces us to its eponymous protagonist. Jung’s title may be reducing Sohee (a wide-eyed Kim Si-eun) to one in a long list — there will be many others like her — but when we first meet the young high schooler she’s brimming with energy, concentrated on the task at hand: a choreographed dance she’s rehearsing all by herself. Her unguarded joy is what opens the film. It is also what’s slowly going to disappear both from her life and from “Next Sohee” altogether.

For Sohee needs to set aside her hobbies. She needs to focus instead on her new internship at a local call center. Her employment, part of her school’s curriculum, is designed to help her get hands-on experience in the workforce. At first, this seems like a good fit. Sohee is a driven young woman who all but gets hired on the spot and who clearly wants to succeed, if only to make the teacher overseeing her internship proud. It is only once she begins to see how grueling the demands of the job are that she begins to fear how she’ll make it through week to week. There are quotas to be met and angry customers to appease. From day one, she understands the former are infinitely more important than the latter.

What Jung achieves in that first half of the film is to paint a portrait of a gamified capitalist system. All the young girls that file into the call center office daily are reduced to nothing more than their numerical output, which is grandly displayed in giant tables and charts for all to see. There is no worker here, just the work produced. Here is the alienation of labor reduced to “dissuasion” and “cancellation” metrics. Moreover, every girl is disposable, especially if she falls below the requisite demands of the job. Jung, who was inspired to write and direct this film after reading about a young girl’s suicide while working at one of these call centers, highlights the insidious way in which companies have rebuilt entire industries to further disempower workers and leverage, instead, their power over contractors who have little to no protections.

Sohee’s job may be at the center of the film, but Jung makes it clear that her fate is not an isolated one. Capitalism feeds on desperation. And once “Next Sohee” twists and turns itself into a police investigation following a seemingly straightforward suicide case, Jung’s interests in the larger questions such deaths provoke become clear. As detective Yoo-jin (a gripping Bae Doona), herself dealing with a job that’s left her frayed, begins following leads on what might’ve happened at the call center, she uncovers an entire system designed to shirk responsibility to the individual. Charts and metrics, quotas and incentives leave everyone admitting they’re hopeless when it comes to the damaging choices they force workers to make: Schools need to place students lest they lose funding; companies need to make quotas lest they lose investments; and so on and so forth. Sohee and those like her become mere cogs in a machine that was never designed to accommodate real people with wants or wishes or even hobbies (like dancing!)

Amid such a bleak and slow burn of a premise, Jung’s “Next Sohee” is surprisingly warm-hearted. The empathy that contractors like Sohee are denied in their workplace is kindly offered by Jung’s camera and by the care she takes in giving their story a much-needed spotlight. Where others may have reduced Sohee to her tragic demise, Jung’s focus on her humanity — the dances she shared with her dance crew, the meals she let her best friend livestream, even the fights she got into while defending friends — make that second half of the film pack an even greater punch. The direction, unshowy and workmanlike as it may be, keenly gets out of the way of the very humane story it’s telling. And, indeed, what we’re left with are two vivid performances that together anchor Jung’s indictment of a system that isn’t so much broken as it is working as intended.

‘Next Sohee’ Review: Sobering South Korean Drama Tackles Labor Exploitation Head On

Reviewed online, Dec. 10, 2022. In Cannes, BFI London, Busan, Tokyo, Red Sea film festivals. Running time: 134 MIN. (Original title: “Da-eum So-hee”)

  • Production: (South Korea) A Crank-up Film, Twinplus-Partners production. Producers: Kim Dong-ha, Kim Ji-yeon.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Jung Ju-ri. Camera: Kim Il-yeon. Editor:Lee Young-lim, Han Ji-youn. Music: Jang Young-gyu.
  • With: Kim Si-Eun, Bae Doona, Sim Hee-seop, Kim Woo-kyum, Song Yo-sep.