Written and directed by Hong Sung-eun.
Starring Gong Seung-yeon, Jung Da-eun, Seo Hyun-woo, and Park Jeong-hak.
A solitary woman re-evaluates her isolated existence after her neighbor dies alone in his apartment.
People’s inability to connect with others face-to-face has been one of the most psychologically defeating aspects of the pandemic, causing isolation and loneliness to become one of global society’s uniting touchstones over the last 18 months.
And while Hong Seong-eun’s impressive debut Aloners is not set during the pandemic, it is an evocative portrait of loneliness that, at least right now, feels difficult to detach from the current worldwide situation.
Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is a twenty-something woman living alone in an apartment block, making ends meet by working at a credit card call centre where interactions with strangers are at a comfortable distance over a phone line. Outside of work, Jina hermetically seals herself in an isolated bubble, donning her earbuds and burying herself in her phone in the hope of becoming basically invisible to anyone who might try to start a conversation with her.
But two incidents gradually force Jina to reconsider her closed-off life; her chatty neighbour, who also lives alone, dies in a freak accident and isn’t discovered for some time, and the arrival of an outgoing co-worker who Jina is reluctantly forced to train.
As director Hong made clear in a pre-screening introductory video at TIFF, Aloners is an extremely personal work for its filmmaker, born from her own experiences in struggling to open up to those around her. As such it’s little surprise that there’s an enormous air of emotional authenticity to her loner protagonist, to whom even basic daily interactions feel an overwhelming chore.
With a quiet power, Hong’s film conveys the difficulty of reaching out to people when every fiber of your being is telling you to shut down – whether justifiably or not – and also the tough steps required to rewire one’s brain to be more receptive to others. But as Jina comes to learn, even small gestures can be life-changing in subtle ways, whether for oneself or someone else – because you never know what others are going through.
In recent years as pocket-ready tech has overwhelmed our lives, and especially since the start of the pandemic, Jina’s story isn’t such an abnormal one. Her eyes rarely leave her phone while on the move, and she eats lunch while watching videos of other people eating – the screen-earbud combo being the universal language of “don’t talk to me,” and becoming armour with which others may view her as standoffish.
Jina even prefers to watch her difficult father through a surveillance camera she surreptitiously installed in his home while her late mother was sick rather than physically interact with him. However, it’s clear that Jina’s contentious relationship with her father is further strained by her mother’s death, as her father attempts to convince her to renounce her mother’s will for his own gain.
This more understandable frostiness is juxtaposed with Jina’s brick-wall attitude to her new colleague, who couldn’t appear to be much more of a polar opposite to her; a peppy, pleasant young woman who loathes the idea of being by herself for any extended period of time.
But between her co-worker’s persistent attempts to make friends and the jarring revelation of her neighbour’s demise – which was only discovered after Jina herself complained about a rotting smell in the apartment complex – Jina’s icy veneer does slowly begin to thaw. No, there aren’t any miraculous, melodramatic transformations of character by film’s end, but at least an understanding on Jina’s part that human connection has real value.
Despite a few heavy-handed slivers of thematically-inclined dialogue and the near-farcical scene in which the wildly overacted caricature of a landlady discovers her neighbour’s corpse, there’s both an emotional intelligence and wry sense of humour throughout Hong Sung-eun’s script.
For one, she sharply captures the mundanity of soulless office life and the particularly crushing nature of customer service work. She does, however, also tease out unexpected slivers of humanity, particularly when Jina deals with a mentally ill repeat caller who believes he has a time machine and frequently calls to ask about the logistics of using a credit card while time travelling. As he makes clear later, though, he too is a lonely person, in his case yearning for his more gregarious past.
Lead actress Gong Seung-yeon says so much here without really having to say much at all; discomfort leaks from every pore of her face when dealing with others, her psychic pain at having to conduct even the most banal small-talk palpably felt. There isn’t an unbelievable bone in the body of her performance.
Hong’s calm, methodical directorial style and measured tone run in perfect sync with the subtle affect of Gong’s turn, while a soothing score from Lim Min-ju amplifies the tender anguish without ever overpowering.
A slight-but-effective depiction of contemporary loneliness that, while not set during the pandemic, unavoidably finds greater resonance amid this current global moment.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.