Director July Jung’s first film, 2014’s A Girl at My Door, starred Bae Doona as a policewoman who gets transferred to a small fishing village as a kind of punishment for having a same-sex romantic relationship. There she befriends a young girl who is being beaten by her father and grandmother and, against all common sense standards of police procedure, takes the girl into her own home. Things get out of hand when the unstable girl develops an unhealthy fixation on Bae, who is too traumatized by her own life, and too determined to save the girl, to notice that she’s essentially adopted a sociopath. The somewhat fanciful dramatics belie Jung’s very real sense of the tangled web of exploitation that traps these women in a world beyond their control, one that is in fact openly hostile to them. Bae’s primary method of coping is numbing through self-medication: sneaking copious amounts of soju into big plastic water bottles to drink surreptitiously. By the end, the tortured logic of abuse and callous disregard for women’s well-being leads to another solution for the two women, one just as unlikely to work.
A Girl at My Door was acclaimed on its release, but it’s only now, eight years later, that Jung has released her second feature, Next Sohee, the closing film of the 2022 Critics’ Week at Cannes. Again Bae plays a detective, Yu-jin, investigating the abuse of a young woman, but the approach is completely different. The first half of the film follows Sohee, a high school student (played with pugnacious charm by Kim Si-eun) who is sent by her vocational school (she’s majoring in “pet care”) to work at a telecommunications call center. The job is to field calls from customers who want to cancel their service and do everything possible to dissuade them from doing so (offering incentives, threatening penalties, delaying service, transferring calls, extending callback windows, etc). This naturally leads to a constant stream of abuse from customers directed at the workers, most of whom are, like Sohee, high school students on “externships.” As if that wasn’t bad enough, the company also manipulates its workers wages with unrealistic goals and incentive schemes, which it then delays payment of whenever possible. Basically, it’s a pretty typical 21st century customer service job.
But it breaks Sohee just as it did her sympathetic supervisor before her. Like him, she eventually commits suicide, which is where Yu-jin enters the picture. Investigating the causes of Sohee’s suicide leads her into a thicket of institutional corruption, one in which every supervisor has their own supervisor to blame, and no one is actually responsible for anything because their jobs are all governed by metrics. The workers have to dissuade a certain percentage of callers or their bosses won’t get incentives because they won’t get contracts with big firms that subcontract the call centers. The externship advisors at the schools can’t report working conditions because they need to get their kids employed or their schools (and districts and states) lose their funding. There’s never any end to the corruption, there’s no one bad guy, the whole damn system’s out of order: the murderer is neoliberal bureaucratic capitalism.
A Girl at My Door contrasted the horrors of its women’s personal lives with the beauty of their natural surroundings, a bucolic setting of green hills, blue waters, and purple skies. But the world of Next Sohee, urban Jeonju, is relentlessly gray and beige, lit by fluorescents with only the occasional burst of pink (a drunken night of karaoke) or purple (a dimly glimpsed sunset). Sohee, in her final moments, is warmed by a ray of sunshine on her toes (she’s wearing sandals in the dead of winter) and wanders to her doom at a placid reservoir. Yu-jin sees the same ray sometime later, but heads back to work. It’s the only sunlight in the whole film. Instead, these women struggle through the grayness. The best they can hope for is mastering a K-pop dance routine all alone in the quiet of a basement dance studio.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 7.