South Korean filmmaker Hong Seong-eun’s Aloners is a low-key film about loneliness and how capitalism takes advantage of depressed people.
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“Loner crushed to death by porn. More and more people failing to find their place in society,” reads a newspaper headline in Hong Seong-eun’s Aloners. It’s a film about loneliness, but that line is indicative of the biting satire Hong laces into a sad story. We follow Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), a young woman who works in a call centre, placidly dealing with difficult customers, day in, day out. Jina is a total loner: she rarely indulges in chats with co-workers, eats by herself every lunchtime, then heads straight home to lie in bed and watch TV. We learn early on that her mother recently died; Jina is evidently extremely depressed.
For anyone who’s ever willingly self-isolated (for non-COVID reasons) in a haze of depression, and buried themselves in creature comforts, Aloners will resonate. The film is leisurely paced and shot in greys and pastels, evoking the atmosphere of depression. Scenes of Jina curled up in bed, or eating the same bowl of comfort food at the same noodle shop every day, are soothing to watch, even as we root for Jina to leave her comfort zone and re-enter the land of the living.
Actress Gong Seung-yeon is the film’s highlight. Her face remains passive for most of the film, but her body language tells us everything about Jina’s state of mind. She seems perpetually downturned, her posture slouched, head hanging, and hands stuffed inside her coat pockets. Gong communicates just how exhausted Jina is by life, so it’s easy to empathise with her unwillingness to interact with other human beings.
The source of Jina’s malaise is never totally clear, although the film gives us a few possible reasons. Of course, depression doesn’t have a clear-cut cause, which is why the plot point that Jina’s mother has recently died feels a bit off. Is Jina so low because of her grief? It doesn’t seem like that’s the only reason, since she isn’t friends with any of her coworkers, with whom she’s been working since well before her mother died. Jina has likely been a loner for some time now; focusing the film’s arc around her mother’s death feels like skirting around the real problem. It makes it all too easy for Hong to resolve Jina’s issues in a neat feature runtime.
Where Aloners does excel, however, is in portraying how capitalism thrives when workers are depressed and disconnected. Despite her condition, Jina is the best worker in her call centre. Her boss eagerly praises the fact that Jina took the most calls that month despite the fact that she took days off to attend her mother’s funeral. It’s ironic, since Jina’s job is to connect with people — in this case, customers on the telephone — something she’s terrible at doing in real life. But all the customers want is an anonymous voice to complain to, and all Jina’s boss wants is a high volume of calls, not high quality of interaction.
Jina is the perfect call centre worker because she’s so emotionally disconnected that she’s happy to follow a script and stay polite when customers are rude and disrespectful. Her boss tells the office that they should improve their workflow, otherwise their jobs will be taken over by robots; Jina is a star employee because she’s able to work robotically. Her boss couldn’t care less if that’s detrimental to her mental health. Ultimately, Aloners understands that in order to get better, Jina needs to find out who she is outside of her job.
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