In debut feature filmmaker Hong Sung-eun’s contemplative and often unnerving debut Aloners, we are faced with the idea of loneliness versus what it means to be content living alone. Based on the phenomenon of the growing number of people who prefer to live alone in one-person households, accounting for a one-third total of homes in Seoul, the film is less intent on finding out exactly why this is such a common occurrence and is more interested in what effects isolation can have on someone, 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 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 on 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.
Indicated to us in the opening moments when she’s shaken briefly from her routine due to a rattling sound, her apathy is about to be challenged. First, by the arrival of new employee Soo-jin (a scene-stealing Jeong Da-eun) who 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.
It’s frustrating, at first, how little a read we’re able to get on Ji-na and what exactly her motives are—or if there are any at all. This too is compounded by the surrealist elements of the film that are woven in throughout—especially as her neighbor’s death continues to rattle her. Despite this though, the writing refuses to hold back from some of her more unlikable moments. She’s increasingly unfriendly with Soo-jin and stubbornly reticent about being friendly with literally anyone.
We learn that she’s still processing the grief of her mother’s death by not facing it head-on. Instead, she keeps the volume up, refuses to change the contact name in her phone into her father’s who’s taken up using it, and pretends that her loneliness is by choice, and not simply a reaction to her trepidation of being alone.
The director is plugged into today’s online content culture as we take in the specificity of the Youtube videos Ji-na is watching as she robotically makes her way through her daily schedule. There is more than one purposefully clever shot of her as she’s out on her lunch break, eating by herself while watching a video of someone preparing their meal or of street food compilations. This, 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 as well how city life in and of itself, despite the sheer volume of people, can be unbearably lonely.
Despite how little happens—at least for the first hour—it moves at an impressive clip, much more engaging than it should be with so much focus on her day-to-day grind. Much of this is attributed to the crisp and fluid direction, the two central performances, and the elements that keep it from being too dependent on one genre. The score from composer Lim Min-ju creates an underlying level of tension, which, along with the at times haunting cinematography from Choi Young-gi and framing that leaves Ji-na often wandering on-screen or visually boxed in (be it the claustrophobia she feels at her desk while training or the window covered room she’s made at home) allows for the paranoia that comes from living alone settle into the makeup of the film.
The script gets messy when it tries to balance the differing genres, bounding from magical realism to in-depth character study/slice of life or even mystery thriller. The story gets too side-tracked by its own side plots which, while less narratively crucial, evoke greater emotions such as Soo-jin’s training and a surprisingly heartfelt conversation with a customer. For a relatively straightforward film, it gets distracted within its plot to the point where it would’ve been better for the director to either cut one of the threads.
However, when the film focuses on the idea of the current work culture of isolation being confused with independence, it ultimately thrives, especially as it spends the entire runtime challenging Ji-na’s beliefs. At the core of the film, Aloners is about the necessity of relationships, no matter if they’re in passing or deep friendships. And while the film ultimately tries to accomplish more than it can handle, it at the very least is a sure indicator of new rising talent with Hong Sung-eun.