혼자 사는 사람들 「Honja saneun saramdeul 」
Release Date: May 19th, 2021
Duration: 91 mins.
Director: Hong Sung-eun
Writer: Hong Sung-eun (Screenplay),
Starring: Gong Seung-yeon, Jung Da-eun, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Mo-beom, Kim Hannah,
Winner of Osaka Asian Film Festival 2022‘s Grand Prix (Best Picture) award, Aloners is an accomplished debut film made by Hong Sung-eun after she graduated from the Korean Academy of Film Arts. In her portrait of a young woman living solo in Seoul, Hong broaches the highly global topic of the way people become isolated from others by the demands and distractions of an urban capitalist economy. This convincing portrait of isolation, done without without didacticism or contrivance, is one that can lead viewers to understand how societies become atomised.
“I’m no good on my own. I just pretend to be.”
Yu Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is our protagonist and when we meet her we see that she has become the top employee at a credit card company call centre where she does her nine-to-five. The company motto is “Happy Your Life” but this is a sentiment she feigns on the line with her effortlessly breezy but ultimately coldly efficient treatment of the often angry people who call in and how we see that her smooth delivery is a massive contrast to the ire with which she treats others in the real world.
Whether it is the frustration she displays with a troublesome father looking to settle inheritance issues following the death of her mother or the curt way that she trains a naïve trainee phone operator named Sujin (Jung Da-eun), we come to understand that happiness is something she has lost sight of. Her life is marked by feelings of anger and grief that go unaddressed. Despite talking on a phone all day, she suffers the ironic fate that she has no outlet to express her emotions as her routine has left her isolated. It isn’t until the death of an equally lonely neighbour occurs that she becomes able to recognise her predicament.
Insights into why she has excelled in her job but failed socially and become isolated come in Hong Sung-eun seeding Jina’s broken family background into naturalistic conversation with a father she is estranged from and a boss she is distant with, both of whom reveal that the call centre was Jina’s first job since leaving her recently deceased mother’s house. Despite the tough start, she persevered at it in order to live independently and so Jina naturally sees parallels in Sujin whom she roundly rejects as an inconvenience in small doses of quite workplace comedy as the younger woman struggles to keep up and becomes miserable. In her curt actions is a silent, “toughen up and do your job” that a more competent employee would feel. The parallels suggest she wasn’t always like this, however.
Through succinct visual scene setting which shows Jina’s daily schedule, as dictated by her work, the constant presence of screens show how she may have been blinded to the corrosive effects of her isolation through their constant distraction. Screens are ever present in many scenes. They suture Jina’s day together, whether at work, on her commute, or at home, and her eyes stay glued to a drama or the readout of a client’s card transactions. These factors have led her into a hermetic routine that has made her the perfect capitalist drone and stopped her being connected to others and made her an “aloner”.
The visual aspect of the film reflects the loneliness and isolation of Jina in how many shots consist of close-ups of her alone in the frame. Even when with others, she has earbuds in and so she is separate. This distracted lifestyle is easy to recognise for many an urbanite. Perhaps the tragedy is felt most in the sight of Jina’s lonely nights eating a paltry microwaveable meal at home with the company of news reports and the sight of her turning down company at a restaurant to watch mukbang videos while slurping noodles. Efficient but soulless dining when we all know that the greatest spice to food is either the love someone puts into a meal or the company of others bringing more flavour.
What stops this from being a miserable experience is that Jina is able to make a change. The epiphany that she is lonely dovetails into her reactions to the reverberation of the death of the lonely young neighbour, something which alerts her to her own alienation from others and leads to encounters with people who shake her out of her emotional stupor. Perhaps the most affecting moment comes in how the older woman comes to see something of herself in Sujin and in making this connection, Jina makes the choice to reach out to someone and admit, “I’m no good on my own. I just pretend to be.”
By the end, with remarkable skill, writer and director Hong succeeds in her aim of capturing the holojok lifestyle, holojok being a portmanteau of the Korean words holo (alone) and jok (together). There is a bit of the supernatural and comedic to proceedings but she paints a realistic picture of loneliness in modern societies. Her persuasive visuals and subtext of isolation and anger bring a lot to the screen but the stirring performances from debut film actress Gong Seung-yeon and rising star Jung Da-eun (Way Back Home (2020), Summer Night (2017)) will move viewers and leave them with a glimmer of hope that warms the heart.