“She just went quietly” an older woman running a cafe explains to a police officer against all advice attempting to investigate the suicide of a young woman in July Jung’s long-awaited A Girl at My Door followup, Next Sohee (다음 소희, Daeum Sohee). In the end, Sohee (Kim Si-eun) did indeed go quietly, cowed into submission by the apparent hopelessness of her life amid the grinding crushingness of contemporary capitalism while even the policewoman who shares her fiery sense of outrage comes to a similar conclusion on uncovering the endemic abuses of the modern society.
Jung devotes the entire first half of the film to Sohee’s slow burn disintegration as a high schooler selected as an “extern” for a call centre business while dreaming of becoming a dancer. These exploitative work experience programs are technically part of Sohee’s high school education and dropping out of them incurs the possibility of not graduating along with being “red tagged” by the school in a lesson in banishment room tactics which sees the kids forced to perform menial tasks such as cleaning the toilets while wearing clothing that marks them out as a failure who has brought shame on their institution. A proud young woman, Sohee is thought of as mentally strong and academically earnest originally excited by the extern opportunity which the teacher sells to her as being a cut above, she being the first of their students to land a position at a “major” company which is also feather in his own cap.
Later Yoojin (Bae Doona), the policewoman who briefly met Sohee at a dance class, asks the teacher why he didn’t bother to investigate what was really going on at the call centre but he only tries to shift the blame explaining that he needs to find good jobs for other kids to maintain the school’s rankings which means keeping on the good side of employers. As Sohee sat vacantly and cried having attempted to take her own life, he dismissed her concerns and told her to work harder. Each time Yoojin interviews an authority figure they tell her it’s not their fault, it’s the system, while blaming Sohee for having “attitude problems” and pointing out that she should have just quit if she wasn’t up to the job.
But Sohee couldn’t quit in part because of the shaming culture that surrounded her in which she’s constantly reminded that her actions have negative consequences for others. Firstly she’s told that her subpar performance brings down their team’s rankings, then shunned by her colleagues because her top scores are pushing up the targets for everyone else. She doesn’t want to let her teacher down by quitting, and even on trying to explain to her parents after her first suicide attempt is simply told to work harder under the fallacy that if you obey all the rules and work hard you’ll be alright. The call centre is almost entirely staffed by externs, in the main teenage girls, who are made to listen to irate customers verbally abuse or sexually harass them while instructed that they must do whatever possible to stop them cancelling their accounts. The call that breaks Sohee comes from a sobbing father who wants to cancel because his child has died so he doesn’t need the service anymore but she still has to try and sell him a new TV package while giving him the run around on the contract cancellation.
Because the externs have a high turnover, the company defers payment of their bonuses to discourage them from leaving while continuously docking their wages reminding them of the clauses in the contract they signed which state that remuneration is subject to change. Sohee was in fact forced to sign two different contracts so the company could get away with paying her below minimum wage which is a violation of what little labour law actually exists while as these are essentially children who’ve signed contracts they don’t understand because their teachers and parents told them to they have no idea of their rights but are gradually realising they’re being exploited and there’s nothing they can do about it. Sohee was thought of as the type to fight back, and she was, she did, but in the end she went quietly because what else could she have done.
She went quietly from the dance class where Yoojin first encountered her too, but does not pass so quietly from her mind. Yoojin asks why it was that she danced given there’s no gain to be had by it, she was too old to become a K-pop star and there’s no money in dancing but for her there was perhaps freedom and a small act of rebellion in the use of her physical body for something other than labour. An inspector who calls, Yoojin shares Sohee’s “attitude problems” and refuses to let the case rest realising that the poor kids at the below average schools are being forced into employment that is almost entirely unregulated while the companies that exploit them paint themselves as the victim, pressuring employees and bereaved family members into signing documents denying any wrongdoing. Betrayed by the company, Sohee first refuses to sign but in the end she does so, quietly, and at the cost of her integrity. Yoojin too is eventually forced to sign a form and put her name to something she believes is not quite true. Sohee’s death was as she puts it a workplace accident, or perhaps a slow motion murder, and “nobody gives a damn” because she was just a teenager with a “bad attitude” who went quietly because no one would have listened to her anyway.
Next Sohee screened as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.
International trailer (English subtitles)