Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners is an engaging film about a woman who is completely disengaged. Currently playing as part of the Discovery stream at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the programme tells us that our protagonist Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) is part of a lifestyle phenomenon known as holojok, “a neologism formed by combining the Korean words holo (alone) and jok (group) to define the growing number of people who prefer to be left alone in one-person households, accounting for one-third of total homes in Seoul”.
Twentysomething Jina works at a call center for a credit card company where she excels; she can effectively go on autopilot and she plays with her phone, and her manager likes her because she doesn’t waste time chatting unnecessarily to clients, and thus avoiding eating up valuable call time. When her personal phone rings, it is something to avoid, particularly from her attention-starved father with whom she has a complicated relationship, especially after the recent death of her mother. Surrounded only by the welcome company of screens – her phone when she is out, her television when she is at home – attempts from those such as her male neighbour to engage in conversation are barely tolerable for Jina, who does not have the skillset to even politely disengage. With his unexpected death and the sudden arrival of the bubbly trainee Sujin (Jeong Da-eun) who is left in Jina’s care, Jina is forced – despite herself – to rethink the voluntary isolation to which she has become so accustomed to.
With Aloners, Hong Sung-eun offers a low-key but moving portrait of withdrawal, heavily dependent on Gong Seung-yeon’s portrayal of Jina as someone both simultaneously physically present but emotionally absent. Watching her repress the sheer agony of being forced to interact with others, the tragedy of Jina’s story is that her isolation manifests as an almost contagious sense of loneliness to those around her, as her determination to isolate herself isolates others by default. With the death of her neighbour, however, the bigger questions – would anyone notice if she was gone, and does she care? – propel both Jina’s journey and the film itself towards a reassessment of her life. A low-key, thoughtful meditation on the difference between being alone and loneliness, isolation and independence, Aloners is a quiet, thoughtful and sensitive debut feature from a filmmaker to watch.