Aloners follows a call centre employee who would rather prefer the company of the digital world than that of people. But when she is tasked with training a new employee, her entire world turns upside down.
Hong Sung-eun (director, writer, and editor), Choi Young-ki (cinematographer)
Gong Seung-yeon, Jung Da-eun, Seo Hyun-woo, Park Jeong-hak (cast)
September 10, 2021 (TIFF)
Isolation has been a hot topic during the pandemic. But what about people who choose to isolate themselves? Aloners explores the phenomenon of “holojok” in Korea, where people choose to live in single-person homes, and avoid making connections with other people. According to the introduction by writer/director Hong Sung-eun, this was something that she found herself doing a few years ago. Her experiences with the phenomenon gave rise to the story of Aloners.
Through protagonist Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), a call centre employee for a credit card company, Aloners portrays the fallout of constant isolation. Jina never interacts with people if she can help it. She lives in a small apartment by herself, spending most of her time on her bed in front of a large TV, which stays on all night to keep her company.
When Jina leaves for work, she plugs in her headphones, and she stays that way on the bus ride, and as she enters her office. The only time she unplugs is when she has to start work, for which she needs to put on a separate set of headphones to keep in touch with callers. At lunch, on her bus ride home, even walking down the street, Jina never removes her headphones, nor does she take her eyes off of her phone screen.
All that goes out the window when Jina is asked to train a new employee. Jina’s track record at work is so good that she is the obvious candidate to improve employee retention. But this requires interaction and Jina is not up for the task. Sujin (Jung Da-eun) is effervescent and eager to learn—and she unexpectedly starts growing on Jina.
I’m afraid to admit that I saw a lot of myself in Jina from Aloners. I enjoy wearing my headphones when I’m out and about—though I wouldn’t have the courage to take my eyes off the pavement—and I don’t always enjoy human interaction. Jina’s shock at Sujin’s requests to join her for lunch mirrored my own in so many instances. It gave me pause and made me ponder the future in a post-pandemic world, especially because isolation has been frustrating but not devastating for me. How, after all this while, are we meant to interact with other people?
Director Hong doesn’t purport to have all the answers. As Jina navigates a world with more communication, she begins to learn how best to interact with other people. But she’s still looking to learn by the end of the film. I think that’s the primary message of Aloners. We don’t know everything right now, and we don’t know the right steps when it comes to connecting people, but we do know how to learn to be better at communicating with those around us.
While I was watching the film, I couldn’t help but wonder, why? Why does Jina need to talk to people? Why, if she likes being alone, can she not remain that way? But as Aloners demonstrates, it’s because asocial behaviour can very quickly become anti-social. Jina’s need for isolation is such a driving force that she is sometimes rude to people. She drives them away, which is what Hong said she found herself doing. The events in Aloners may seem extreme at times, but they aren’t actually that far-fetched. I can see a lot of people watching this film and re-evaluating how they communicate with friends, family, and co-workers. I certainly am.
There’s more to the story of Aloners than just a meditation on isolation, but to reveal those plot points would ruin the film. A revelation right at the beginning of the film caught me completely by surprise. It’s never quite explained in the film, and I don’t mind. Sometimes things happen in life and they don’t make sense. That doesn’t mean they didn’t impact us.
Aloners is a very atmospheric film, and it needs to be considering the subject matter. Diegetic sound plays a huge role in our engagement with the film. We hear what Jina hears—and what she wants to hear. The more involved she becomes with her co-workers, her father, and her neighbours, the more of her world opens up. And the sound design matches it. Keep an ear out for those subtle hints—it’s remarkably well done.
Gong is the undoubted star of the film and appears in almost every scene, bar one. She deftly captures the anxiety of human communication and the loneliness of being unseen in a crowd. It’s easy to become engrossed by Gong’s Jina because she could truly be anyone of us.
Aloners feels like the kind of film we need during a pandemic. Though it has absolutely nothing to do with the world’s current circumstances, it explores phenomena that are more pertinent now than ever before. I also hope that Hong’s message gets through to the audience. The digital world has connected us but we don’t need to be on our own all the time. And we certainly don’t need to use our isolation as a reason to push people away. It’s a message I’m going to be contemplating for a while.