Hong Sung-eun delivers an introspective and haunting tale of isolation and work culture in Aloners, starring Gong Seung-yeon.
Is there a line between loneliness and contentment in living alone? Hong Sung-eun’s contemplative and often unnerving debut, Aloners, asks that very question. More and more people around the world are preferring isolation and one-person households over the traditional norms, and Aloners is clearly inspired by this phenomenon representing about one-third of all homes in Seoul. Yet the film is less intent on finding out exactly why this is happening and is instead more interested in the effects isolation can have on a person, especially one who has recently endured a significant loss.
Ji-na (played with steely reservedness by Gong Seung-yeon) is currently the top employee at a credit card call center and, beyond the necessary interactions that come with her job, prefers to isolate rather than build social relationships. She watches videos on her phone on the bus ride from work and when she gets home her TV is still on from when she left in the morning. She eats pre-packaged meals on her pull-out couch while browsing her phone as the TV plays. And aside from her room where she’s set up base, her apartment is still as bare as the day she moved in with little proof that anyone lives there at all.
But this projected apathy is about to be challenged, initially indicated by a startling noise that momentarily shakes her from routine. First, by the arrival of new employee Soo-jin (a scene-stealing Jeong Da-eun) whom she’s tasked with training. Second, by the increasing calls from her estranged father and, lastly, the death of a neighbor who wasn’t found until a week after his passing.
Ji-na is a deliberate, difficult read.
The film holds Ji-na’s motives — if she has any — close to the chest. Her solitary existence and personality is compounded by the surrealist elements of the film that are woven in throughout. This is further exacerbated by her neighbor’s death, which continues to rattle her. Seung-yeon’s writing refuses to hold back from presenting Ji-na at her most unlikeable. She’s increasingly unfriendly with Soo-jin and stubbornly reticent about getting close with anyone.
This reluctance — even anger at the notion — of becoming close with someone makes the discovery of her mother’s death all the more impactful, reshaping how we view her character. Failing to process her grief over that loss, she instead keeps the volume up, refuses to change the contact name in her phone to her father’s (who has taken up using it), and acts as if her loneliness is by choice, rather than in reaction to her trepidation of being alone.
A reflection on today’s society.
Aloners is plugged into online content culture as we take in the specificity of the Youtube videos Ji-na watches as she robotically moves through her daily schedule. Along with beautiful city and transit shots that visualize both Ji-na’s isolation and many of those around her as they too have their eyes pinned to their phones, the film depicts how easily city life can be a disconnected experience, despite the sheer volume of people.
The film moves at an impressive clip. It’s engaging despite how much of the focus consists of a single person’s day-to-day grind. Much of this is attributed to the crisp and fluid direction, the two central performances, and some unexpected elements that keep it from being overly dependent on one genre. The score from composer Lim Min-ju creates an underlying level of tension, which, along with the often soul-stirring cinematography from Choi Young-gi, leaves Ji-na often wandering on-screen or being framed as visually boxed in, be it the claustrophobia she feels at her desk while training, or the window-covered room she’s made at home. These techniques allow for a striking paranoia, as Ji-na’s insulation from the world around her could doom her at any moment.
On that note, the script contains a few too many distractions from the already poignant message. The film bounds from magical realism to slice-of-life character studies and then bouts of thriller. The story also introduces side plots that aren’t crucial to moving the narrative forward, though they do evoke grand emotions, such as when Soo-jin’s training at the call center transitions into something surprisingly heartfelt.
The bottom line.
When the film focuses on the idea of how our individualistic work culture can be confused with independence, it thrives. Especially as it spends the entire runtime challenging Ji-na’s beliefs while still taking them seriously. At its core, Aloners is about the necessity of relationships, no matter if they’re in passing or deeply felt. And while the film ultimately tries to accomplish more than it can handle, Sung-yeon still finds a way to bring it all together in the end.
Aloners is now available on VOD and Digital. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Film Movement. Read more articles by Allyson Johnson here.
Rating - 8/10