‘Aloners’ Review: A Contemporary Korean Woman Navigates Loss in Self-Imposed Isolation

Set in pre-pandemic Seoul, Hong Sung-eun’s sensitive drama “Aloners” is a reflective interrogation into modern loneliness, as well as the silent brutalities of today’s urban life defined by competition, technology and nonstop productivity. The film follows a depressed young woman named Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), who works at a call center. She is currently the top employee in the office and is praised for having handled the greatest number of calls despite having lost her mother recently. Productivity is the most-valued trait in her workplace, and Jina knows this well. She treats all her clients equally, whether they happen to be deranged, abusive or pleasant. Her voice is always polite and calm regardless of how her often-entitled clients behave, but her eyes appear soulless. She looks like someone with a serious but completely asymptomatic disease.

Jina speaks to no one unless it’s necessary. She clearly comes from a dysfunctional family and has unresolved issues with her estranged father (Park Jeong-hak), who was once unfaithful to his late wife. But instead of communicating in person, Jina monitors him remotely with a hidden camera she installed in his house. She eats inexpensive microwave dinners alone on her bed (she has a separate kitchen and a living room but leaves them totally empty and unused) and watches TV mindlessly until she falls asleep. When outside and not working, Jina makes sure she immerses herself in her mobile phone, YouTube videos and earbuds, even when eating alone in restaurants. But it’s not just Jina who leads such an isolated life. Her neighbour next door (Kim Mo-beom), who also lives alone, dies at home without anybody noticing for at least a week.

The film is a product of South Korea’s real-life societal trends and concerns, including the rise of unattended deaths and single-person households, and the issue of exploitation in its notoriously competitive labor market. One-person households made up 33.4% of all South Korean family units in 2021, and unaccompanied fatalities rose by 40% from 2017 to 2021. Director Hong, 35, was inspired by her personal experience of enjoying living on her own but also having anxieties, especially after watching a documentary about “godoksa,” or lonely deaths, in which people, often cut off from family, die alone and go undiscovered for weeks or months.

The film also reveals how ruthless the urban job market can be, and the way it effectively encourages employees to dehumanize themselves to maximize profit. While being told to improve their performance, Jina and her colleagues are threatened by their manager that they could soon be “replaced by AIs.” When a young new recruit (Jung Da-eun) becomes upset after talking to a belittling client, she is told not to share her “genuine feelings” at work. Rather than expressing condolences for her mother’s passing, the company recognizes Jina for being the most productive worker despite taking “two days off to attend her mother’s funeral.”

Jina’s ability to talk to her customers — many of whom are nasty and demanding — with ease and imperturbability while still processing her mother’s death almost reminds of an emotionless and efficient machine. She is able to maintain her composure — and hence make her living — because she has also grown to regard her clients as if they are replaceable non-humans. “They are all the same,” Jina callously tells the new recruit, when a man with a mental disease, who claims to have developed a time machine, nervously asks them if his credit card would work in the past. “You don’t have to treat him any differently.”

Jina begins to reflect on what she’s missing when someone (Seo Hyun-woo) moves into her late neighbor’s home and, after learning what happened, holds a small memorial ceremony for the dead — although the new tenant had never met him. Before the service, the deceased was just another unnamed “social outcast” whose death by a falling pile of porn magazines was exploited by the media. Jina had never seen a gesture like this at work, where mourning — arguably one of the most fundamental modes of being human — is virtually not allowed. The film skillfully tackles several themes, including modern loneliness, but it ultimately serves as a thoughtful study about what it costs to be human, each with feelings and unique needs, in a hyper-competitive society that prioritizes profit and efficiency.

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