A high school student rehearses a dance routine in front of a mirror. She stumbles, picks herself up, and starts from the beginning. On each run-through, she falls on the same move. After each fall, she rises to her feet. The dancer exits the studio into winter’s first snowfall. She goes to dinner with a friend who livestreams the meal. When a guy at another table snipes at the pair, the dancer confronts them. The solitary dancer is So-hee (Kim Si-eun). We follow her from this moment to the end her life.
So-hee is pulled out of class and told she has been placed in an externship with a telecommunications sub-contractor. Her teacher is pleased because the school has struggled to get any students into a major company. The boys go to factories. The girls to call centres. Her induction, she tells her friend, and fellow dancer, Tae-jun, consists of cosmetics instructions. Nothing bold, coral pink is in, and mind the diet. From there, So-hee enters a world where verbal abuse is the job and sexual harassment is “just bad luck.” Her manager, the only man in an office pool of young women, gives her a script and tells her that customer service is just mind control. Keep your dissuasion rates high by giving people something they don’t want. Talk like this permeates Next Sohee. If it is not dissuasion, it is employment rates. A drop in one means lost wages; in the other, a loss of school funding. Ours is a quantitative world. What cannot be measured cannot exist.
In 2016, director and writer Jung Ju-ri came across the story of a high school student who committed suicide within three months of being placed in a call centre. She first responded to the fact that students were being placed into work during their studies, before questioning how the schools themselves could remain so blatantly negligent about the conditions at their partnered employers. Next Sohee explores this by following one such student through the process of dehumanisation that goes into preparing one for work in these call centres. In the opening sequence, we see how principled and confrontational So-hee is. When she becomes an inconvenience for both the sub-contractor and the school, this will be twisted into ill-temper.
The cultural specificity of the scenario is beyond my experience, but the milieu within which the narrative operates is familiar. Conformity and competition are prized above all else. What matters is targets. The first part of the film is one of incessant audits, where performance is measured and personality subdued. So-hee and her co-workers are young because there is less liability in employing externs. They earn less than older, full-time employees. Whatever performance incentives they earn are withheld for several months. Students too readily quit, so the carrot must be dangled from a longer stick. When So-hee confronts her manager over her docked wages, she is told young people are always “grubbing for money.” So-hee’s influencer friend is told the same thing by the guy in the opening scene. ‘These kids refuse to work’ is the general tenor taken by the managerial generation.
There is a striking sense of atomisation around So-hee. We are used to associating this with office cubicles, but it is more fundamental than this. At home, So-hee’s mother stares blankly over her shoulder at the television in the background. To make a claim regarding the damaging effect of mediation would be a pat diversion. The problem explored in Next Sohee is foundational. The first part of the film succeeds insofar as it demonstrates a facet of the system by which we secure economic life as we know it. So-hee’s work is inexpressive, revealing and generating nothing. This is a corporate environment wherein big boards of data are rolled out and workers are chewed out for not sufficiently selling something they not only cannot touch, but which their customers do not want.
So-hee falls into torpor. She sees no way out. Her school pressures her into staying in work because too many of her classmates have quit their jobs. Blackmail prevails on all sides. If it is not docked waged, it is her school graduation. She grows distant from friends whom she cannot afford to see. As recently as 2021, suicide was the predominate cause of death in South Korea among those aged between ten and thirty-nine. It is from this that the first part of Next Sohee draws its commitment.
The second part follows detective Yoo-jin (Bae Doona) as she investigates the circumstances leading to the dancer’s suicide. They have already had a chance encounter when So-hee visits the studio at which they both danced. This later section feels less vital because it is more narrative. The police investigator going beyond her remit to uncover the dirty truth of what makes society tick owes more to cinematic narrative than it does to any lived experience (oh, if only we had more conscientious police detectives!). Nonetheless, Jung Ju-ri succeeds by pushing these sequences towards an elaboration of a condition – social, cultural, and political – that accepts dead teenagers.
“Why did she dance?” Yoo-jin poses this question to the members of the studio through which our protagonists pass. Dance in no way animates the case at hand, but it does allow a brighter picture of So-hee as a person. This second part effects a looser focus, ranging as it does over incidents and people on the periphery of the action, though central to the dancer’s life. We learn that Ko Jun-hee, So-hee’s influencer friend, turned to social media after dropping out of school when her teachers would not allow her to quit her job in a call centre. Tae-jun left his factory job after an altercation. However, he may return, as this would allow him to avoid military service. Everyone is put into service, slotted into the machine. Yoo-jin herself is pressured into dropping her investigation. After all, So-hee is “just another suicide” and the telecommunications company has profit to burn on media coverage.
Next Sohee does not break new ground in demonstrating that nobody is at fault when everybody is at fault. It succeeds, however, precisely because it refuses to sensationalise the daily realities of the milieu it depicts. We must confront this.
So-hee dances because when she falls, she can pick herself up. The studio is the arena within which she is expressive of ends entirely her own.