A slow burn works best when it really burns. That’s how it goes with Next Sohee. We’re either sitting in with a character’s total disaffection and alienation from their world or we are slowly moving through life at luxuriant pace, with every shot holding long enough to find out new things about what is in the frame and how the characters in the film are. When a director is gentle with their characters yet also wants to create yearning in their audience, sometimes stretching a scene too long as the shot hangs and the audience is directed to feel this tension, they have a more complete control over their movie than the director who moves too fast. Pacing isn’t everything. When it’s the function of the movie, to use a slow pace to evoke the interiority of the characters, it can be everything. The pacing is everything in Next Sohee.
It sets this tempo right away by refusing to set an audiovisual cue altogether. Kim Si-Eun’s Sohee bounces in front of the camera. She’s practicing a dance. Rare way to start a movie but there is no audio accompaniment. Everything in the film is diegetic so this creates an expectation and also a distance. We are not living inside Sohee’s head. We are not going to imagine what we think she hears or sees. There is, at least, no self-insertion here. This signals we are simply watching actors in a movie; remove all illusions and we might anticipate the course of the movie differently.
The film still wants us to get to know Sohee but the author’s choice is that we do not get to be her. We do not get to find out why she does things. The first half of the movie is her progression, as high school student enamored with dance to despondent call center worker to suicidal teenager. It’s a heavy course to follow. As it works out, the first half of the film is about how she lived and the second half is about how this was ever allowed to happen, envisioned through the perspectives of other characters. Director July Jung does not cut corners in the second half which centers around grief. When the heightened feelings get uncomfortable Jung does not cut any sooner. She does not excuse the audience from feeling anything.
Jung sits inside these feelings because she is outraged. The film is based on a true story, wherein a school sent one of their kids into a horrible working environment where they lasted a short time before dying by suicide. Doona Bae plays the detective, who works as a proxy for the director and the audience. Bae allows Jung an authorial voice beyond simply telling the story. The first part of the film documents what the events of Sohee’s life must have been like. The second half is the director grappling with what happened out of outrage and concern for the systems that allowed this situation to develop.
This tactful split neatly divides the movie. It feels like two movies, in how well-rounded and defined the parts are from one another. Jung is a tactician in this sense, nailing the guilt of a system of abuse. The whistleblowing manager in power also died by suicide, guilty of abusing his staff, a cycle of regret that begins from the top, and leaves everyone inside of it unable to cope with the difficult and harassing responses they receive from doing basic call center work. The film is about preventing there ever being a next Sohee. It takes a look at the systems in power and how they are abusive to workers.
The film is quiet and unassuming enough that you might just overlook it. July Jung isn’t as flashy as her South Korean contemporaries. She also does not play in the high concept playground the more populist directors are playing in. She breaks her own ground. With gentle intensity, she leaves the camera rolling, always a bit too long, until we are as uncomfortable as the situation requires us to be. In this film of two halves, we are morally outraged and wondering how a film can sustain such mid-film depression? The ingenuity of the film is in resolving the conflict, not for the character, but for the director, in a processing of grief. You’ll know it’s a slow burn because every time it slows down you will feel the film burning.