Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Aloners is an incredible debut film by director Hong Sung-eun that focuses on a Korean term "honjok," which is a phenomenon of young people who live alone and skirt social interaction. Interestingly, the film was conceived and shot at the end of 2019 — thus the isolation elements are not a reaction to the global lockdown — but will likely resonate even more with audiences having now lived through it. The "honjok" depicted in the film by Hong looks to understand why one may put up walls and choose to be alone.
Gong Seung-yeon plays Jina, who is the best employee at a credit card call center thriving at following the manual for all of the customers' calls. Outside of her interaction with customers via her headset, Jina lives alone, eats alone, sleeps alone, and watches content on her cell phone. Her isolated way of living is threatened by three separate instances: her father (Park Jeong-hak) begins reaching out to her to cope with his own sense of loneliness; her boss (Kim Hae-na) assigns Sujin (Jeong Da-eun) to Jina for training; and a new neighbor (Seo Hyun-woo) insists on getting to know her.
Isolation is inherently cinematic. Hong uses every frame and set to help emphasize this idea, as Jina is often in the center of the frame with the background slightly out of focus. Her apartment is small and organized in such a way that implies there are no plans for another person to ever be there. Even on the bus, her isolation is on display for us. We watch her voyeuristically as she watches a video on her phone, with her ever-present headphones snugly tucked into her ears to imply that even we aren’t being let into her world completely. No one knows exactly what Jina is going through — except Jina. Every aspect of the film is functional in telling this story, and its impact pays off exceptionally at its end.
Gong’s performance would be easy to overlook because of how understated much of it is. Yet, there is a complexity in her silence, and her inactions. We see her eating alone several times throughout the film. The way she eats changes subtly throughout the film, all building towards an emotional breakdown. It may seem imperceptible at first, but the moment Jina is finally ready to confront the reason for her isolation, the change in her eating will be clear. It’s also why Jeong’s performance as Sujin is also so impactful. The two seem to be polar opposites, as Sujin early declares how many friends she had back home, and would hate to eat alone as people may assume she has none. It is in this relationship that the film is able to explore Jina’s character and lifestyle more so than any other.
There is a straightforwardness to the major story that is easy to appreciate. However, it is the smaller pieces that really give the audience something to sink their teeth into. For example, one customer who calls a few times is listed as mentally ill. He believes he is a time traveler, and wants to use a credit card in his travels as paper money could become cumbersome. His story is far more complex than it needs to be, and the peeling back of its layers reveals much about the film's central message. Another element that would be easy to overlook is another bus rider’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty cellphone case positioned directly behind Jina’s head. It is an odd film for a person in 2019 to have as a cellphone case until you remember how much Walter lived inside of his own head, and that film’s story is about him setting aside his fears to pursue the relationships he desired. There is no wasted space in this film, and Hong clearly demonstrates her understanding of the craft.
Aloners was one of the most engaging quiet films I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. As a self-proclaimed introvert, it wasn’t always easy seeing elements of my own life on screen. I never felt judged by the ideas in the film, but I did find myself frequently reflecting on my own interactions with people. Jina’s story unfolds in fascinating ways that never seem to say she is wrong for living alone but seeks to understand why she has chosen this lifestyle. Even while we are forced to watch Jina in Aloners from a distance at times, she too watches her world in a multitude of ways. It is an undeniable exploration that Hong offers her audience in an expertly crafted movie.
Aloners is out on VOD on June 9.