Aloners (Honja saneun saramdeul) (2021)

Aloners screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2021. Below is a rough transcript of my live introduction to the festival screening, and also my programme note.

Welcome to this evening’s screening of writer/director Hong Seong-eun’s Aloners (Honja saneun saramdeul), which has already won its lead Gong Seung-yeon best actress prizes at Jeonju Film Festival and with the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards.

One of the paradoxes of living in a capital city like Seoul or indeed London is that even though your surroundings are more densely populated than anywhere else in the country, it is all too easy to find yourself feeling isolated and alone. Two films that screened in recent years at the London Korean Film Festival, Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat (2017) and Jeon Gye-soo’s Vertigo (2019), both followed young women living on the precarious economic and social edge of Seoul as they struggled to maintain their integrity in an alienating and often hostile environment. Aloners is very much a spiritual sister to these films. It focuses closely on Yu Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), who works at a credit card call centre and, apart from her remotely conducted business calls, closes herself off from the world around her. 

Jina talks to others as little as possible – and this includes both her estranged and recently widowed father (Park Jung-hak), and the workplace newcomer Sujin (Jung Da-eun) whom Jina is expected to train but would prefer simply to ignore. Insulating herself from the outside with her headphones and her mobile, traveling alone, eating alone and sleeping alone, Jina lives a hermit’s life of voluntary exile and self-erasure, willingly cut off from family, community and society – and she risks becoming a complete oddball recluse like the young man who lives in the apartment next door and who only ever emerges to smoke on the balcony or to buy porn for the massive collection with which he surrounds himself (as his own precarious bulwark against loneliness). Yet despite Jina’s tough, frankly rude exterior, she is quietly filled with a sense of loneliness, longing and loss that she is reluctant to show to others or even to herself – until one day the death of a stranger sets her thinking about the mortality of her loved ones and herself, and about the lost connection that she secretly craves.

Although this intense character study unfolds in a strictly realist mode where there might seem to be little room for the supernatural, Hong Seong-eun’s feature is a kind of ghost story, with Jina haunted both by her late mother and by her eccentric neighbour. Yet it is Jina herself who is the film’s real ghost, making herself so inconspicuous and out of touch with the people around her that, as one of her customers tells her over the telephone at work, “Nobody would notice your absence anyway.” It is that fear of disappearing completely, of dying alone and unloved, that will shake Jina out of her aloof stasis, and reveal the well-hidden human side of this otherwise initially unlikable person. And in Jina’s retreat from the company of real people into an online world of streamed programmes and music, it is all too easy for us to recognise ourselves and our own gradual drift into the virtual realm where other people can so easily be kept at a distance. It is enough to make you nostalgic for a better, more communal time – perhaps a time like 2002, the year to which one of Jina’s mentally ill clients longs to travel back in a time machine that he claims to have built, in a subplot that recalls Colin Trevorrow’s Safety Not Guaranteed (2012). In many ways, Aloners, like Trevorrow’s film, concerns a certain kind of collective mental illness brought about by our modern, atomised way of living. Jina here is both a patient and a spreader of this condition, who must step outside of her self-made shell if she is to find a cure for what afflicts her.

Aloners is Hong Seong-eun’s feature debut, but she has expertly crafted something singular and subtle, personal and political, that lays solid foundations for a long and successful career in filmmaking. I hope you enjoy it.

strap: Hong Seong-eun’s feature debut turns the lonely self-exile of its apanthropic heroine into a barebones urban ghost story

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Yu Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) works alone at a credit card call centre, eats alone, smokes alone, travels home alone and lives alone in her apartment, with her headphones, phone, webcam and television as her only real company. When Su Jin (Jung Da-eun) joins the team, Jina, assigned against her will to train the new recruit, roughly and repeatedly spurns all her friendly overtures. Yet following the death of her mother, and of a similarly lonely neighbour whom she never really knew, Jina starts tentatively reevaluating her connections with her colleagues, her widowed father and the world. 

Directing, writing and editing for her first time on a feature, Hong Seong-eun uses just the barest whisper of a ghost story to highlight this otherwise all too realistic and recognisable tale of urban isolation and alienation, and gradually reveals the human side of a character who at first seems deeply unlikable.

© Anton Bitel