ALONERS (혼자 사는 사람들)

Reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival.

I want to be alone.

So said Greta Garbo, an icon of the screen and one of the more reclusive celebrities of the 20th century. Its pithiness fit her persona like a glove. But it was wrong. In a 1955 interview with LIFE magazine, Garbo clarified that she said, “I want to be let alone! There is all the difference.”

Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) also wants to be let alone. Twenty-something and living on her own, Jina works at a credit card call center. The company’s motto is “Happy your life,” but not one person working here, nor the customers that call, seem to be all that pleased. One customer calls wanting to know if his card will work when he travels back to 2002. His account has been flagged, “Mentally ill.” He calls a lot. “We haven’t set up time-traveling services yet,” Jina replies, a true pro. 

Jina is the best operator at the center, but it brings her little joy. When she’s not staring at her computer screen and listening to disembodied voices at work, she’s staring at her phone with her headphones in. Screens can be magical things. They can transport you to different places, different times, and introduce you to different people. They can also be used as a shield to block out everything around you. Jina prefers the latter.

And she’s not alone. Written and directed by Hong Seong-eun, Aloners is a dramatic approach to the recent phenomenon of holojok—a combination of the Korean words holo (alone) and jok (together). According to the press notes, holojok accounts for one-third of the total homes in Seoul. And this was before the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, the number must be staggering. 

Jina lives in one of those impersonal high rises where the lights operate via motion sensors, and the door makes a metallic creak every time she opens or closes it. It sounds more like a bunker than a home. It’s laughable when Jina’s neighbor (Seo Hyun-woo) moves in and says he’s ready to start a family. Here? Surely he jests.

It’s a masterstroke Hong can present a character this isolated and a story this bleak and not make Aloners feel crushing. It’s not an uplifting movie, but it doesn’t leave you feeling despondent. I think Hong achieves that through curiosity more than anything. The camera remains at a respectful distance. The color palette cinematographer Youngki Choi employs is muted, but not unnaturally so. Gong’s performance is equally natural: Somewhat weathered by the world, but not crushed. Not yet, at least.

The not-yet part comes courtesy of the call center’s recruit: Sujin (Jung Da-eun). Sujin is excited to learn a new job and make new friends, and, naturally, Jina is tasked with showing Sujin the ropes. There’s part of me that wants to assume Jina was once like Sujin, but that would mean Sujin will end up like Jina. I don’t want that to happen. Hong doesn’t either. Remember that part about Aloners not leaving you feeling despondent? That’s what I mean.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Aloners (2021)
Written and directed by Hong Seong-eun
Produced by Lee Seung-won
Starring: Gong Seung-yeon, Jeong Da-eun, Seo Hyun-woo, Jeong-hak Park, Kim Hae-na
Distributor TBA, Not rated, Running time 91 minutes, Release date TBA.