Ji-na sits in a cubicle, with only a Keith Haring tissue box to distinguish this space from any other in the office. She talks into a headset about something banal and financial — she works in a call center for a credit card company — and never looks up from her phone. At least, until someone tries to call her on it. She isn’t, however, trying to block out the world exactly; in fact, her colleagues’ voices envelop her in a hum. Aloners, Hong Sung-eun’s debut feature, recognizes that isolation in the 21st century isn’t quiet or even really solitary; any emptiness is always full of something, and even if it’s little in substance, it can be large in quantity. Ji-na still doesn’t look up from her phone during the whole trek back to her one-room apartment.
This observation, of the dependence we have on smart phones and their placating effect, might seem a banal one, though that’s not to dismiss it. It’s interesting, to say the least, that those of us most addicted to these little addiction machines, which have all but our best interests at heart, are the most likely to reject what is self-evidently true about them. This comes not in trying to disprove any particular angle of argument, however, but by making the very idea itself a cliché: all critique can be reduced to “phone bad.”
Ji-na is forced to play a hyper-passive character on the phone, but she isn’t oblivious to this either. She isn’t like Wanda, from Barbara Loden’s eponymous film, who doesn’t seem to comprehend what’s being done to her. She’s the best in her office — her calls are the shortest — because she understands that she doesn’t have to emotionally engage with whomever she’s talking to. So when her comfortable solitude is disturbed by the adorable and bright-eyed Soo-jin, whom she is forced to train, she punishes her. She leaves the new girl hanging during uncomfortable calls, and she doesn’t tell her how to mute so that she might be able to ask for help. After all, that’s the way she was trained, Ji-na bitterly reminds her boss. She recreates the conditions of her oppression out of spite; she doesn’t have to believe in the system to keep working its gears.
Hong lays all of this out in a straightforward and intuitive way, as she makes the experiences that define Ji-na’s character very clear. She is grieving her mother, but her father — whom she resents for carrying on his life — points out that she was this way long before that loss, stating that she became detached as soon as she got this alienating job. But as these pressures start to heighten, Hong takes a tentative step into the surrealism latent in her milieu rather than indulging it more explicitly. Too polite for caricature, this only simplifies Ji-na’s experiences without universalizing them. Most people don’t get the luxury of such dramatization, as life continues to hurtle onwards. Tragedy and despair can do little to stop it when you have to get up the next day and go to work so that you can pay rent. And so, Ji-na starts to slip away from the group she represents; after all, the title is not Aloner, but its plural.
This move from systematic (or political) to psychological is one of the core issues found in mainstream cinema today. Everything Everywhere All At Once, the most recent Oscar Best Picture winner and a favorite among a certain sect of cinephiles, even goes as far as to suggest that economic problems can be solved simply by putting kindness out into the world, like something out of The Secret. Some of this is built into the conventional three-act screenplay — that many don’t think to look beyond, or have had it too deeply branded into their brain — where plot resolution and character arcs are tied tightly together for maximum satisfaction and hermetic closure. But underneath is a genuine and quite depressing ideology.
After Ji-na forgives her father and apologizes to Soo-jin, she wakes up to a new dawn, with the TV she always leaves on, and decides for the first time to turn it off, saying: “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” But if this is Oz, then it’s more than her creative ambitions that have been diminished. Sure, she takes some time off work, but eventually she’ll have to come back. If there’s anything better for her to find, Hong keeps it to herself. For Wanda, this self-awareness brought nothing but despair, and for all intents and purposes, Ji-na finds herself in the exact same place. Wanda looks down but Ji-na looks up, out the window of the bus and back to her shitty apartment. In a sunny, optimistic final image, all she sees is the world reflected back onto her.
You can currently stream Aloners on Film Movement.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 23.
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