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Solitary Animal

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TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
Aloners (2021)

“Aloners” is being marketed as an exploration of a life isolated by choice, but it felt much more about how easy it can be to become isolated when you’re dealing with grief – especially when your everyday life isn’t all that wonderful in the first place.

Jina (Gong Seung-yong) works in the call center for a bank (motto: Happy Your Life!), where she is praised for being the leading call handler despite taking two days off work last month for her mother’s funeral. She eats lunch alone at a ramen counter, watching cooking videos on her phone and watches other videos during her commute by bus. In the smoking area at work she stares into space, not even chatting with the others out there. At home she keeps the television permanently on, for company – it’s implied she lives in only one room of her not particularly large flat (this evidently being Seoul, she enters the flat with a passcode instead of a set of keys). To get to her front door she must pass a neighbor, who’s always glumly smoking on the walkway. But then three things happen: her father, who only came back into their lives a few years ago, summons her for the reading of her mother’s will. At work her boss (Kim Han-nah) tells her she must spend a week training a new hire, the wide-eyed Soojin (Jung Da-eun). And something bad happens to the neighbor next door.

Writer-director Hong Sung-eun seems to think Jina’s melancholy is as the result of her choice to keep human interaction to a minimum, but Jina doesn’t seem to be unhappy with her lot. Ms. Gong plays Jina as self-contained and closed-off, but not brittle or unkind, just indifferent. Her main emotion seems to be disappointment – her father’s an immature, careless man who was not around for most of her childhood and their relationship is one of strained obligation (a parallel to the otherwise dissimilar “Queen of Glory”, another recent movie about how the loss of her mother upends a young woman’s carefully controlled life). Jina is good at her job, letting people voice their frustrations and concerns without deviating much from the bank’s carefully designed scripts, but it’s draining emotional labor, and she doesn’t want extra responsibilities, and only does so when her own job is threatened. Soojin isn’t the issue; she’s a sweetheart, eager to please and nervous, which unfortunately rubs everyone the wrong way. And the tragedy at home, which no one at work knows about, means that her sanctuary has been invaded.

Would Jina be living like this if she hadn’t just lost her mother? The movie doesn’t know. There are plenty of ways to remain connected to other people without being in the same physical space as them, but Jina’s life doesn’t seem overflowing with people who actually care about her. It’s a chicken-egg situation; would she be so alone if she had a better job or a better family, or would a better job or family made any difference to how alone she feels? Her phone’s a crutch, a distraction, and not remotely the problem. Therefore as a character study this is a good one, but no larger points are made, not for Korean society or global culture. No one retreats into never taking off their headphones or collecting porn magazines to the ceiling unless there’s been some kind of disappointment; if these are addictions they aren’t mentioned or treated as such. But modern life in a city can be lonely and alienating – all these strangers to be interacted with constantly, even if it’s only to ignore them – especially when the foundation of your life has just passed away. So it’s a strange choice to imply grief has had no impact on Jina’s lifestyle.

Finally, it’s set in 2019; would the movie land this awkwardly if we weren’t all still in the middle of this exhausting pandemic? Probably not; the whole world is having to grapple with issues of separation, forced distance and alienation right now. We’ve all learned there are downsides to independence, not least that this is regularly mistaken for indifference. “Aloners’ ” quiet thoughtfulness isn’t one that audiences should be indifferent to.

One final note: There’s so much smoking in the movie that it’s almost shocking; a specific ashtray is even a major plot point. It’s another reminder of how a something like banning smoking indoors has an impact we don’t fully grasp until we see a culture that makes different choices.

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