TIFF 2021: Aloners Review

In his directorial debut, Hong Sung-eun considers the Korean concept of “honjok”—people who choose to live on their own and limit their social interactions. Aloners explores the difference between isolation as a result of grief and depression, and self-imposed separation out of mere preference. A quiet film that touches on issues beyond social constructs seamlessly, it creates an interesting and engaging narrative.

Aloners follows Ji-na (Gong Seung-yeon), a credit card call centre employee who lives alone and has no interest in befriending her colleagues. Following the unexpected death of her neighbour (a fellow one-person household), which goes unnoticed for days, and exasperated with being forced to train a super-friendly new employee at work, Ji-na begins to confront the reasons behind her behaviour.

As we follow Ji-na, we feel the mundanity of her life. Each day she wakes up with her TV still on from the night before, she takes the bus to work, eats the same bowl of noodles for lunch, and returns home to eat dinner in bed in front of her TV before falling asleep. The days tick by with no purpose—it feels like Ji-na is counting down the days out of sheer obligation. Gong plays this mediocrity with the perfect balance of contentedness and a muted undertone of unacknowledged depression.

Hong goes beyond the expected discussion around honjok and explores the role capitalism has in not only encouraging isolation, but taking advantage of it. Ji-na is the top performer at her job with her employer using her ability to outperform her colleagues despite taking time off for her mother’s funeral as an example to strive towards. Hong taps into the notorious working culture of Korea and even hypothesizes on why honjok is an exceedingly popular way of life in Seoul: less social distractions, better rewards at work.

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In addition to these larger themes, Hong gives a nod to compassion towards mental health issues, exploitation of codependency, and society’s obsession with technology where each character (including background characters) are constantly locked on their phone screens. With several points of discourse raised, the narrative of the film threatens to be muddled and at times, interesting issues have their impact dampened.

At its heart though, Aloners is a formidable meditation on the thin line between anti-social and asocial. Bolstered by a layered and subtle performance of Gong, Aloners is a compelling snapshot of modern daily life for many in Korea and around the world.

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