TIFF 2021 review: Aloners (Hong Sung-eun)

“Aloners understands that being alone is deeply linked with the ability or lack thereof of a communal experience that first appears in the understanding that our experiences may be the same as those of others.”

In Hong Sung-eun’s Aloners, Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), a woman who fears picking up her own phone and uses it only to watch TV, works in a call center of a credit card company. Even though she avoids answering her father’s calls and never reaches out to a co-worker to have lunch together, she still spends most of her day answering calls from strangers that may seem to be asking for some sort of assistance with their cards at first, but in fact are not that different from her. Maybe every interaction is scripted in the sense that the customers begin by stating their problems, to which Jina is supposed to reply “yes, sir/ma’am” every time. And it is precisely because it is scripted that it becomes manageable for both Jina and her customers; though not necessarily communication, these calls might be the only time of the day they engage with another human being.

That is an option because there has been a shift within society as a whole. It is important to highlight that even though she has no one to call, Jina is seen almost always holding her mobile phone. People are connected all the time, social media create a spectacle out of everything and it seems that as people grow closer to each other in their alternative universe of the internet, they grow further apart in real life. As much as it sounds dystopian, life seems more and more centered around working until death and looking for entertainment online; so almost every scene with Jina is either set at her workplace or in front of her TV and mobile phone, just like the only information we have about her neighbour ends up being that he was a lonely person, addicted to porn.

Hong Sung-eun uses two changes in Jina’s routine to comment on loneliness. First when she is forced to train a new employee, something she does not want or even know how to do. During the training, a strange customer calls with a peculiar question: “I’m not crazy but I invented a time machine and I’m going back to 2002. Would my credit card work back then?” In this absurd scenario, she expects her trainee to follow protocol and say nothing but “yes, sir” and “no, sir”. Soo-jin (Jeong Da-eun), however, engages in a conversation with the customer and asks him: why 2002? He answers that it’s for the Japan-Korea World Cup, a time when people sang and rooted for their team together, in unison, as opposed to our current times. The second change in Jina’s routine comes when her neighbour, a guy who tried to talk to her a couple of times, is found dead in his apartment. He was crushed to death by a book shelf full of books and porn magazines. When his body is found, Jina is asked how she could not have noticed that the guy who lived next door had simply disappeared. How could she not hear the bang when the shelf crashed into him? The thing is that she did. She has just learned to not engage with other people.

Slowly the character begins to break down and Jina seems incapable of keeping her mask on. She doesn’t like her life, but she accepts it; she doesn’t know how to live a different one. Eventually her co-worker quits, her mother dies, and her stranded father tries to get back in touch with her. But how can she give him a call when they don’t have a close relationship? How to ask a co-worker to have lunch together? To have a smoke break together, when she made sure to simply do her job without interacting with anyone? There are no right or wrong answers. And it is because there is no rule to be followed that maybe Aloners doesn’t end up being great, for it gets to a point where everything about the lives of its characters needs to be explained, as if loneliness was not something relatable by itself. One of the film’s greatest sequences is when Jina, eating and watching TV, hears the sound of something heavy falling and does nothing to find out what happened. However, later that week when she learns about her neighbour’s death, she also learns about his addiction to porn, that he was bullied, and that he felt like he didn’t belong. So what is being asked of the audience here? To feel empathy towards another human being and understand that we live in a world where you can be dead for days without anyone noticing? The screenplay sadly gets lost trying to provide unnecessary answers.

Often when pondering about loneliness and how I perceive my own interaction with people close to me, physically and emotionally, Alone, a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, comes to my mind:

From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—

What a crucial and yet frightening understanding! As Poe’s speaker posits so well, being alone is deeply linked with the ability or lack thereof of a communal experience that first appears in the understanding that our experiences may be the same as those of others. And Aloners gets this right because every transformation, every bit of questioning by the main character only happens after seeing a parallel action in someone else. In the end, Jina does not magically change or tragically succumb to her loneliness, but learns that others are experiencing something similar.