Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"In one of the most complex and intriguing performances of 2021, Gong keeps us guessing about what Jin-na is really thinking and feeling."

In a capitalist system, it’s easier to succeed if one is alone. One can then move around to wherever there is opportunity and fit into any schedule required. One is less likely to be emotionally distracted. Indeed, the less one engages emotionally, the easier it is to take the abuse frequently targeted at front line workers by frustrated customers. In her role providing telephone support for people having problems with their credit cards, Jin-ah (Gong Seung-yeon) is always effortlessly polite, contrite and sympathetic on behalf of her employer, completing calls quickly and maximising customer satisfaction. She’s the perfect productive unit. But how much room does that leave for her to be a person?

Perhaps it’s personhood that Ji-na dislikes. She’s estranged from her father, dutifully watching over him by means of a camera he knows nothing about. Her mother’s death is frustrating because it interrupts her streamlined life and forces her to deal with strangers, whose quietly reproachful glances recall Camus’ L’Etranger. When she’s asked to train newbie Su-jin (Jung Da-eun) at work, she does so with pointed reluctance, and makes it clear at every opportunity that she doesn’t want to become the nervous young woman’s friend. Every day she progresses through the same routine, with no need to to feel. She doesn’t seem happy, but she is content.

One persistently intrusive factor in Jin-ah’s life is her neighbour (Kim Mo-beom), who smokes on the balcony near her apartment door and makes what he probably thinks is conversation with her. She effortlessly keeps him at a distance, like one of her customers. Her lack of personal engagement does not deter him, however; perhaps it leaves more room for his projections, as her silence makes more room for his voice. Then, one day, she abruptly learns that he has died. A neighbour claims that he was crushed to death by his collection of pornographic magazines. She finds one lying on the concrete at her feet. It’s a surreal moment, quite in keeping, in its way, with this landscape of alienation, directing viewers to the undercurrent of black comedy which runs throughout. Nobody seems overly concerned about the death. It is as if a tiny light blinked out somewhere, unheeded. But perhaps Jin-ah is alerted to the meaninglessness of her own existence as she was not before.

In one of the most complex and intriguing performances of 2021, Gong keeps us guessing about what Jin-ah is really thinking and feeling, but we see a definite change over the course of the film. Is she truly honjok, a loner by choice, or is her distance primarily defensive? If she wished to make a change, what would that look like? Gong deftly engages viewers whilst remaining quiet, subdued, giving us only slight and sometimes seemingly contradictory flickers of emotion. Jin-ah is almost completely self contained, yet we get hints that she might be on the brink of rebellion.

A thoughtful, low key film which only occasionally overplays its hand, Aloners, which was one of the selections for the 2021 London Korean Film Festival, is a snapshot of modern life which is cynical about the present yet and tinged with hope for the future, suggesting that solutions may emerge organically as a consequence of human nature.

Reviewed on: 08 Nov 2021
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Aloners packshot
Reflection on loneliness through the life of a solitary woman.

Director: Hong Seong-eun

Writer: Hong Seong-eun

Starring: Jeong Da-eun, Seo Hyun-woo, Jeong-hak Park, Gong Seung-Yeon, Jeong Da-eun, Seo Hyun-woo, Jeong-hak Park, Gong Seung-Yeon

Year: 2021

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: South Korea

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