Next Sohee (다음 소희, July Jung, 2022) [Fantasia 2022]

“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)

A Girl at My Door (도희야, July Jung, 2014)

fullsizephoto427951Review of A Girl at My Door from the London Film Festival up at This is also playing at the London Korean Film Festival which opens today with a gala screening of Kundo: Age of the Rampant. Director July Jung will be at the LKFF screening on 7th November for a Q&A tootickets still available!

You’d never know it, but A Girl at My Door is actually the first feature film from promising new Korean director July Jung. Produced by well regarded Korean auteur Lee Chang-dong (Poetry, Oasis, Peppermint Candy), the film evidently benefits from some of his expertise but it would be a mistake to over emphasise his involvement. Like Lee’s films A Girl at My Door is a tightly plotted character drama that opens up to explore a whole host of social issues but Jung has certainly been able to put her own stamp on the project and if A Girl at My Door is anything to go by, she is very much a talent on the rise.

Lee Young-nam (Bae Doona) has just arrived in the little hick town she’s been exiled to thanks to some kind of undisclosed infraction committed in Seoul. As the town’s new police chief, she’s thrust into the largely male world of local law enforcement and forced to acclimatise to small town politics with hardly enough time to breathe. Lee is also a high functioning alcoholic who guzzles soju from refilled litre bottles of water though her colleagues don’t seem to have noticed and her work is barely affected. After catching sight of the same young girl who seems to be constantly running away from someone or other, Lee eventually intervenes when a group of teenagers are picking on her. Do-hee is a troubled teenager from a violent home where, abandoned by her mother, she’s ‘cared for’ by a step father and resentful drunken grandmother. Do-hee quickly fixates on Lee and her superficially fearless attitude and eventually Lee has taken the girl in and offered her a place of solace way from the chaos of her home life. However, no matter how good one’s intentions may be, others will twist the facts to their own advantage and doing the right thing can often prove dangerous.

Possibly one of the benefits of having a high profile producer like Lee Chang-dong is that you’re able to get yourself a high profile cast of talented actors for your first film despite not having a proven track record or industry clout of your own. Bae Doona’s performance of the largely silent Lee is nothing short of extraordinary. There’s a sort of defiance in Lee’s silence, an unwillingness to speak because she knows there’s very little point. All we can glean about what happened in Seoul is that her dismissal has something to do with the fact that Lee is gay – something that is accidentally discovered by exactly the wrong person when Lee’s ex-partner comes to town. It’s not so much that she’s keeping that secret from the townspeople, but more that she knows it’s going to be a problem and she’s unwilling to deny it either. After all, she’s been here before and she knows how this scenario plays out. Taking in someone else’s child can be a dangerous thing for anyone, but as one policeman later puts it “it’s different when a homosexual does it” and even the most innocent, well meaning of gestures suddenly becomes something sordid and dirty. Lee’s world weary attitude seems to imply she half expected this would happen, still – there was a girl at her door, what else could she do?

Bae Doona is equally matched by the already fairly experienced teenage actress Kim Sae-ron as the troubled young girl, Do-hee. A mess of contradictions, Do-hee is both vulnerable and dangerous. One of the villagers refers to her as a monster and she certainly has a dark side which can be selfish and manipulative as well as a tendency towards fantasy. However, at the root of things she’s just a lonely, abandoned, unloved and unwanted child. Of course, as soon as someone shows her the slightest hint of kindness she will latch on and become fearful of losing even that extremely slight glimpse of affection. Perhaps therefore, she says things that aren’t quite true without fully understanding their implications and ironically risks ruining the fragile happiness she’s so desperate to cling to. It is quite an extraordinary performance from such a young actress – Kim Sae-ron manages to unify all of Do-hee’s contradictory sides into a convincing, and ultimately quite moving, whole.

A Girl at My Door does have its social issue dimension – the exploitation of illegal immigrants, small town politics, homophobia, sexism and of course unwanted children are all themes at some point touched on through the film, but what is at heart is a character drama about two lonely women who both find new strengths thanks to their unexpected friendship. Jung has crafted a charming and moving film that is only improved by its tremendous feeling of stillness. Beautifully shot and full of intriguing ambiguities, A Girl at My Door is a fantastically assured debut feature which hints at a very interesting career ahead for director July Jung.