Nothing screams “the movies are back” more than an analytical character study all about isolation, depression, and postpartum grief. Throughout the duration of Hong Seung-eun’s debut feature entitled Aloners, the audience is constantly thwarted by the pressure and cinematic depiction of meaningless routine. The lead protagonist ‘Jina’ is the film’s prominent vessel for the audience to project upon; a narrative highlighting an intriguing new South Korean phenomenon known as ‘holojok’, told through Jina’s point of view. Through the structural framing device and narrative of a grief-stricken young adult, the endless hours at call centers and mundanity of microwavable meals & cigarette smoke becomes virtually hypnotising.
Seung-eun purposefully directed the film for the absorbing effect of cinematic numbness. From pale colour complexions to a lack of non-diegetic sound, the highly attentive and purposeful realist stylings provide thematic overlap against the film’s meaningful aesthetic. The subject matter on its own is so versatile and relatable in practice, where Seung-eun’s execution delivers an additional ounce of nerve-wracking tension. The film’s two acts build up to one unrelenting manic episode; a third act shift that provides clarity and conclusion to the film’s seemingly scattershot thread of disorienting subplots.
Perhaps a tad more focus on the supporting characters and narrative threads should have been brought to light far sooner than initially expected. With the amount of tragedy and bleak irony occurring in Jina’s seemingly humdrum life, there’s very little breathing room to fully process and simmer the realisation of these questionable events. From a man suffocated to death by his own collection of pornography, to the persistent attention-seeking of the Jina’s absent father — Aloners is compact with various absurdist ruminations on societal malaise. The theme goes hand-in-hand with Jina’s occupation; a call centre occupied by mistreated employees and their vow for proper customer service. On paper, these brief scenes work as both social satire and engaging melodrama. In execution, they rarely differentiate with the rest of the film. A similar gripe can be directed towards the film’s finale; another case of ‘multiple ending syndrome’ where Aloners could have easily concluded minutes earlier for a more polished and less obvious resolution.
Though even with its moments of nihilism and dubious execution, Seung-eun’s impressive debut is the perfect reflection piece for our current downbeat times. A film tackling hefty thematic weight as a means to directly reflect and analyse both pandemic social-life and millennial mental-illness, there’s a refreshing amount of honesty and emotional stakes buried within Jina’s character arc. It’s bold, unconventional, and most importantly moving; a complex puzzle that rarely handholds nor treats its viewer as a consumer of capitalist-driven entertainment.
Aloners screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Discovery program. The film is currently seeking international distribution.