'Next Sohee' shines light on the unnoticed exploitation of young people

Actor Kim Si-eun as Sohee in "Next Sohee" [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

The new film “Next Sohee” is a powerful narrative about exploitation and the psychological toll it takes on young people, telling the story of a high school student who takes a job at a telecommunications company as a call operator.

The film, helmed by director July Jung and featuring veteran actor Bae Doona, exposes how Korea's social system takes advantage of the weak, and poses an unflinching look at what happens when exploitation is neglected.

“Next Sohee” opens with the titular character Sohee, played by rookie actor Kim Si-eun, as she practices dance moves in front of a wall of mirrors. She repeatedly tries to pull off the last move of the dance, but falls again and again, never being able to make the finishing position.

“That opening scene could be seen as a metaphor for everyone who tries their best but fails,” said Bae during a roundtable interview in central Seoul on Feb. 2. “We have a saying in Korean, ‘trying to break a stone with an egg.’ The weak and vulnerable try their hand at tackling impossible tasks, but they fail again and again, and in the process hurt themselves.” Bae plays a police investigator named Oh Yoo-jin.

Actor Kim Si-eun as Sohee in "Next Sohee" [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

The next scene then turns to a job interview for Sohee, in which the young high school student is told that she needs to do her best and perform well to uphold the name of her school and act as a role model for the younger students at the school who will follow her footsteps into the corporate world. Sohee brightly answers that she will heed her teacher’s words, and promises to fill out her contract that the teacher hands over to her to sign.

The film then follows Sohee as she navigates through the trenches of her new workplace. The office is a contractor of a big telecommunications company that deals with customer service calls from users of the larger company. Screens and voices fill the small room where forty to fifty young girls sit at the desks, filling out forms on their computers with each call they receive and filing complaints from customers as they speak into their headsets.

Sohee, in a daring and impressive debut performance by Kim, manages to learn the ropes fast enough to earn the top spot in the employee competition to “block” cancellations to the telecommunications company. In the process, she faces some challenges and has an outburst when she is confronted by a customer who makes sexual advances toward her by phone late at night, but she fights her way through and somehow climbs to the top.

But there are consequences. Sohee’s mental health slowly deteriorates until one pivotal moment in the film where the genre of “Next Sohee” itself practically shifts and Bae emerges as the protagonist of the second act.

Actor Bae Doona as Oh Yoo-jin in "Next Sohee" [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

Investigator Oh, played by Bae, delves into Sohee’s story and tries to find out what exactly happened to the young high school student who so diligently tried to fulfill her contract but “failed” in the end. The ensuing story is both infuriating and heartbreaking to watch — Oh herself is faced with the metaphorical egg trying to break open a stone as she is faced with the institutional and systematic exploitation of young people.

“There are still many Sohees out there in our world still,” said Bae. “There shouldn’t be, but there are. I participated in this film and played Oh because I wanted to say to all those Sohees, please hang in there. And thank you for not giving up. Thank you for holding on.”

Bae was nearly in tears as she expressed how she connected emotionally with the story of the two female characters. Bae said that as a person “who has gone through that age already,” she wanted to participate in telling a story for the youth who are “suffering because of the wrongs that society and adults have built up for them.”


“I feel like I was too harsh on myself back then, when I was younger,” said Bae. “Now that I look back on that time, I think to myself that I had not needed to be so hung up and hard on myself. I wanted to say to everyone — and this may sound naïve to some people, but — we do not have to be bad to ourselves. And the young are weak, and vulnerable, so I think we need to protect them as best as we can as a society.”

Director Jung expressed her own thoughts behind the scenes of “Next Sohee," saying that she "got the inspiration for the story of ‘Next Sohee’ from a real-life event, in which a young student was abused and exploited at a call center."

“Even after that case, I found out that children who went on field employment contracts died, or were injured, or suffered atrocious abuse. I thought of writing an original screenplay and making this movie from that.”

Jung says that her investigation and studies into the case brought her face-to-face with a systematic problem in the Korean labor market.

Director July Jung [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

“The press, the companies, educational institutions, everyone knew there was a problem, but no one came forward to solve it,” said Jung. “It was something that had been built up for years and years.”

“Next Sohee,” as a film that calls out the societal problems of Korea, was invited to the Cannes International Film Festival last year. Local and international press have called the film “another masterpiece that will show the strength of Korean films.”

Cultural critic Kim Hern-sik says that the societal nature of “Next Sohee” should be seen within the context of the story, being based upon real-life events.

“When we talk about these kinds of films, those that call out societal problems, we tend to focus a lot of attention on which bits did actually happen in real life and which bits were fictional,” said Kim. “But that is not the central point of films like ‘Next Sohee.’ We should focus more on whether the message of the film is relatable, and what kind of message it poses.”

Actor Bae Doona as Oh Yoo-jin in "Next Sohee" [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

Kim also addressed some critical reviews of “Next Sohee,” in which pundits have pointed out that films such as these may shed a “bad light” on Korean society, as it calls out the problems embedded in the social system.

“The power of Korean content is that our films point out the realities of societies in general,” said Kim. “Issues such as exploitation of young children are not just applicable to Korean society. Take school bullying in the recent hit drama ‘The Glory’ on Netflix, for example. School bullying is a global, widespread issue, with the United Nations reporting that over a quarter of students in Europe alone experience bullying.

Actor Bae Doona as Oh Yoo-jin in "Next Sohee" [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

“The strength of Korean content is that we call out these realities and address them. So films such as ‘Next Sohee,’ which points to the exploitation and vulnerability of children, can have a universal effect — as did ‘Parasite’ with class warfare and ‘Squid Game’ with the race for monetary gain. These issues are global, and Korean content can pinpoint such themes and address them.”

“Next Sohee” opens in theaters on Feb. 8 and can be viewed with English subtitles at Emu Arts Space in Jongno District, central Seoul, and KU Cinema in Gwangjin District, eastern Seoul.