I’m alone as I type this. My solitude isn’t quite solitude, though. Here in my office with me are two dogs. One cat just walked out of the room, while the other cat is upstairs. She’s with my wife, who mostly works from home. Our son is in his bathroom, listening to music at a fairly punishing volume.
Like I said, my solitude isn’t solitude, per se. Years ago, though, the solitude was very real. I’m not so old that I don’t remember that lousy one bedroom apartment in Tacoma, Washington. There was a feeling of being the only person in the complex, despite the neighbors above, below, and across from me. We presumably were aware of our respective presences, but we never got to know each other. We only knew each other by the sounds of footsteps, muffled words, and doors opening and shutting.
I’ve learned about the concept of honjok, a Korean phrase that refers to those who wish to be left alone. I’ve also learned that honjok has become a topic of great interest in the South Korean arts, and it’s been examined in books and television. That’s because forty percent of South Korean households now consist of one person. Are we to believe that honjok is a uniquely Korean phenomenon?
Not at all. The world moves forward, whether we like it or not, and there’s a deliciously cruel irony to life in the twenty-first century. Technology and population movement has made it easier than ever for us to connect with each other, yet many of us feel more isolated than ever before. As you read this, the odds are pretty good that you’re within fairly close proximity to another person. But are you close to them? That’s an entirely different concept. Aloners is the first film produced in South Korea to drill down into lives spent in solitude within a tightly-knit world.
The majority of Jina’s (Gong Seung-Yeon) life is spent alone. She lives in an anonymous Seoul apartment building. No roommates, no partner, simply her modest living space paired with earbuds and her phone. Does she have a thriving life online? I can’t say, but I do know she spends a great deal of time online watching videos. Does she enjoy it? I can’t say.
I don’t think Jina particularly enjoys her job, though she’s very good at it. She works at a call center* handling customer service for a credit card company. Jina’s boss (Kim Hannah) recognizes her skill and values her as much as a call center supervisor can. Her overtures of friendship bounce off Jina’s icy shield. Jina does her job, goes to lunch alone, does her job, then leaves.
We don’t know how long Jina has lived this solitary life, but the recent death of her mother hasn’t helped matters. Her father (Park Jeong-hak) calls her often. In fact, the frequency of his calls has been increasing. He wants to talk about his new church, his health, and Jina’s life. As far as we can tell, Jina wants him to leave her alone, along with the rest of the world.
The world will not leave her alone. In fact, Jina’s boss assigns her to train Sujin (Jung Da-eun), a friendly young woman who’s new to Seoul and wants to do a good job. That’s an annoyance, as is Jina’s new neighbor (Seo Hyun-woo), a considerate man who’s a little baffled by Jina’s standoffishness. The world will not leave Jina alone, and she’ll have to confront her life of honjok whether she likes it or not.
When we talk about a slice-of-life movie, we mean the kind of film that isn’t plot-focused, but immerses us into the particular life of a person. That’s what Aloners does so well. Director Hong Seong-eun shows us the rhythms of Jina’s life. Her filmmaking is remarkably precise, and everything from the shot composition to the edits is planned just so. Aloners runs for a brisk ninety-one minutes, yet there’s never an issue with the pacing moving too fast or too slow. It’s deliberate when it needs to be, and picks up to reflect Jina’s emotional urgency.
Hong Seong-eun’s screenplay is just as impressive as her direction. Good screenwriting is all about the concept of “show, don’t tell,” and that’s precisely what happens here. We learn about Jina’s life by watching her live it, and we learn about her character when we see the hermetically sealed life she’s built get punctured. Again, this isn’t a plot heavy, “Protagonist must do X otherwise Y will happen” kind of film. That’s not to say it’s aimless, and as time goes on, we can feel the pressure slowly creeping up on Jina to do something.
For this film to work, it needed a particular kind of actor who can deliver a particular kind of performance. Luckily, it got Gong Seung-yeon. As Jina, she’s playing a person so determined to shut the world out that she’ll put all of her energy toward that goal. Her work is incredibly subtle, and as the film goes on, watch as she slowly loses control. Jina is someone who lives her life with a laser focus on what she doesn’t want. Striving for a goal that is impossible makes for fascinating drama.
Political division, technological advancements, and other factors allow honjok to thrive worldwide. As I write this and as you read it, a person in Colorado is turning away from the world, as is a person in Beijing, as is a person in Perth. Aloners illustrates a global trend by focusing on the specificity of a single life. It’s a film of great intelligence, quiet emotion, and a real yearning for connection.
*I speak from experience when I tell you that if you ever wanted to quickly feel disconnected from people, working in a call center is an ideal way to do that.