Investigating a death

July Jung on student exploitation, suicide and Next Sohee

by Jennie Kermode

Next Sohee
Next Sohee Photo: courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Just the second feature by South Korea’s July Jung, Next Sohee won her the Best Director award at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and came second in the Audience Awards vote for Best Asian Film. The closing film of the festival, it’s a blistering exploration of the exploitation of school children through work experience programmes, presented as a drama in two parts. Having very much admired Jung’s previous film, A Girl At My Door, I was delighted to get the chance to speak to her at the festival and ask her a few questions about it.

Since seeing the film, I have spoken to people in several countries who have told me that the same kind of exploitation happens where they are, so I ask her how she first came across the issue.

“At the beginning, I got a proposal to make a film out of this incident where a young female student, who was working in a call centre, committed suicide,” she explains through an interpreter. “I didn't know about this case at all so I watched an investigative documentary to get to know about it more. After watching the programme, I could not understand why such a high school student was working in that kind of workplace and why the school was forcing the students to work in this kind of place and do such harsh, harsh labour. I thought that was important to investigate.

“After I had developed my own understanding of the situation, I thought that I had to make this story in film, because this was not a one time incident, it kept happening. And in the film, we were talking about a call centre, but there were a lot of other, different workplaces where students were working and there were incidents happening on a continuous basis. I didn't know if this kind of thing was happening in other countries, but it was typical in Korea that this incident happened. But after making this movie, and after sharing opinions with the audiences around the world who saw this movie, I realised that these kind of incidents can happen in many other, different countries as well. And I thought, it is a universal issue around the law.”

The titular Sohee dies by suicide after experiencing unbearable pressure at work, but the second half of the film is framed as a detective story. It strikes me that as odd, I say, that we expect action when somebody is murdered but often let matters go pretty easily in situations like this.

“My film does not deal with murder, it is talking about a suicide, so it could be a little bit different from other genres movies that deal with this kind of thing,” says Jung. “However, although I'm talking about a case of suicide, I think it is also a story which investigates the reasons and all the causes that made this person finally commit suicide, so in a way we can think like that. And actually, I was thinking about this particular thought after I made this film: apart from the death that is being talked about in the movie, I think of a case like a firefighter who is entirely surrounded by fire and isolated. For him, there is no hope of surviving if there is no other person or colleague who comes to rescue him from outside. Even if he wants to get out of the fire, without without help from from outside, he cannot leave.

“So I was thinking about this kind of people who are entirely isolated and who want to get free of this isolation, and, but who cannot on their own. And I was thinking, how come these people actually finally commit suicide? What kind of ordeal do they go through to make such a decision? And I think my movie deals with this kind of thought in the latter half.”

The relationships between Sohee and her friends seems to break down over time because they’re so exhausted by work that they no longer have the energy to support each other.

“Yes,” she agrees. “At first they are very lively and they fight in good humour, but gradually they fall into depression and they lose their vitality. And the film shows the processes whereby these young people lose their energy and their vitality, and finally, how they get isolated by their own decisions.”

There's a wonderful role in there for Bae Doona. Was she always first choice to play the detective?

“In fact, I cast Bae Doona for the role of Yoo-jin, the detective, first, as this character is in fact the character that has to lead the story until the end. And when I decided to make this story in two parts, I knew right away that Bae Doona would be the right fit for this second part main character, that and in the first part, the main character dies and does not appear anymore in the second part. So Bae Doona has a very important role. And I thought that because of her own unrivalled aura that captivates the audience – it is huge – she was the only actress I could think of and I knew that could assume this role.

“After working together in my first film, I knew that she was perfect. She had always shown the perfect performance and as an actress who should take the responsibility of the rest of the film after the death of the first main character, she has to show that she knows to investigate and that she understands the situation which led to the death of the young girl, and I thought that Doona would be the person who could play the role the best.

“While filming, I was once again very much surprised by her good acting and good performance. And after casting Doona, I tried to cast a Sohee and I thought that it would take much time to find the right person. However, my vice director recommended Kim Si-eun, and the first time I met her, I knew that she was Sohee and I decided to cast her right away.”

We are running out of time at this point, but she takes a moment to explain her decision to use a two part structure.

“I wanted to show not only the death of the main character, but I wanted to show why she died and how the different people involved interpreted her death from their own perspectives and from their own points of view. And also I wanted to show the process of understanding about the death by the detective Yoo-jin and sharing her understanding with the audience. I thought it was very important.”

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