“Aloners” Review

There’s nothing groundbreaking in the idea that, rather than bringing us closer together, technology has left us more divided and isolated than ever before. There have been several films in recent years that have criticised the dehumanisation of the digital age, and almost all of them have invited immediate parody (most notably, Jason Reitman’s Men, Women and Children), due to how they thrive on conservative moral panics in order to sell outdated outrage about the internet, and social media specifically. These are films that aim to find profundity in their depictions of how we’ve found ourselves detached from the world through the world wide web – it should be no surprise that they’ve been treated by an internet-addled audience by an eye roll and a mocking “we live in a society” response.

Image © Courtesy of London Korean Film Festival

Aloners, the debut film from Hong Sung-eun, initially seems like it’s going to fall into this exact same trap. We’re introduced to Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), who works in a call centre for a credit card company; when she’s speaking with customers, she’s warm and engaging, but immediately steps back as soon as any call ends, escaping via her headphones and the warm glow of her smartphone screen. She has a strained relationship with her family, and is prickly towards the new co-worker she’s been tasked with training. But her self-imposed solitude is put to the test following the death of a neighbour she purposefully never tried to know, the circumstances of his death (and equal loneliness) making national news.

Image © Courtesy of London Korean Film Festival

Rather than becoming a simplistic, one-note assessment on a generation too caught up in their screens, Hong’s film never lingers too long on any hand-wringing reasons for their disconnection. For that reason, it becomes a far timelier film than it otherwise could have been, feeling especially relevant arriving after sustained periods of quarantine – where some have adapted to their newfound loneliness, and others have deteriorated without a constant sense of connection. Jina is a character depicted at arm’s length because she very deliberately keeps herself that way. This approach to the character study may leave some viewers surprised that there are some genuinely moving observations about social connection in the drama around her.

The pandemic has made a film that would otherwise be highly specific to Korean culture have a resonance on a global level. The director has previously spoken of the country being very “relationship-oriented”, with the idea of even living alone being an alien concept until recently; here, the fate of Jina’s lonely neighbour is considered a tragedy partly because of his lack of connections. It probably explains why she engages in the high wire act of shutting herself off, while trying not to appear too detached from the few people in her life who do perceive her daily. 

Image © Courtesy of London Korean Film Festival

It’s interesting to think how this film would be received by international observers had we not experienced a global pandemic, as the moments that have the most emotional resonance in this exploration of connection are the ones most intrinsically tied to Korean culture. The most profoundly moving moment is one that comes out of the left-field, via what initially seems like a running joke – a man who keeps calling the credit card company saying he’s built the time machine and wants to know whether his card will work if he goes back to before its invention. The revelation of the specific moment in time he wants to travel back to winds up being the scene that best encapsulates the film’s ideas; the desire to go back to a very recent past where there was more of a social spirit, because of just how isolated we’ve now become. It’s not a Covid film, but the small moments like this scene articulate the feelings of many over the past few years better than the works directly tackling the crisis.

Aloners is far from being a perfect debut, and not all of its insights into the human desire for connection feel as revelatory – there are several moments where you will feel like Hong is stating the obvious. But in its finest sequences, when the director showcases her deeply perceptive and wonderfully humane approach to a familiar brand of character study, this doesn’t matter.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

Aloners screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

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