A still from Aloners.

In present-day South Korea “aloners” constitute the country’s so-called “1conomy” — restaurant, food-service, entertainment, and leisure enterprises geared to a population of singles who prefer living alone and eating, drinking, and entertaining themselves unaccompanied, to the perceived tedium of constructing relationship with others. Aloners (Honja sanun saram tul [literally “People who live alone”]), a film by Hong Sŏng-ǔn, introduces us to Yu Chin-a, a young woman connected to electronic devices during all
her waking hours: Earbuds for checking her cellphone on her way to and from work
as well as at lunchtime; earphones for the calls she takes at a credit card call center;
and a large-screen television facing her in the sparse yet cramped bedroom of her
apartment. For lunch every day she has an identical order of ramyŏn (ramen) at an
eatery equipped with a kiosk where you place your order, eliminating the need for
interaction with a server. A classic “alone in the crowd” shot has her on a packed bus making its way through a busy intersection in the heart of the city. For dinner she has microwaveable takeout. She sleeps in her clothes.

What we don’t know are the circumstances that have reduced Chin-a to a state of expressionless in which she rejects almost all contact with the outside world. This ambiguity about her past and the uncertainty of her future sustain this film treatment of quiet desperation. Early on we see Chin-a visiting the shabby Western-style brick home inhabited by her mother after Chin-a’s father abandoned her 20 years earlier. The home is occupied now only by the father, who returned shortly before the mother passed away.
During the visit Chin-a, unbeknownst to her father, connects the security camera in the living room to her cellphone, allowing her from then on daily viewing of her father’s activities. Scanning the archived film, she comes upon an image of her mother tottering off screen to the bathroom, followed by her father, who then calls for an ambulance. What happened? Was her father somehow complicit in the death of her mother?

At work Chin-a is flawless and unperturbed, speaking respectfully with a telephone clientele that are by turns impatient, frustrated, enraged, abusive, confused, and not infrequently delusional. She has just been recognized yet again as number one employee of the month, and is told by her supervisor that she is their “top rep.”

Dents begin to appear in the armor of Chin-a’s solitude. Returning to her apartment building one day, she notices a fetid odor and reports it to the management, eliciting the discovery of the rotting corpse of her next-door neighbor, who has been crushed metaphorically by the weight of kodoksa (death from loneliness) and in actuality by an avalanche of steamy print material and pornographic DVDs. She resents the new resident, who has been lured to the vacant unit by its below-market rent. Noticing he is using the former resident’s ashtray, she asks, “Do you make a habit of using other people’s be-
longings?” His rejoinder: “Do you make a habit of always being pissed off?”

At work Chin-a is asked to break in Su-jin, a new trainee. She accepts the assignment against her will, then leaves Su-jin, seated beside her, to fend for herself, curtly explaining that everything she needs to know is to be found in the manual. Before long Su-jin breaks down during an onslaught by a hysterical caller.

By this point in the film, the viewer might be excused for thinking, Here we go, Hell Chosŏn all over again—a reminder of one of the prominent tropes of contemporary Korean visual and print media, constructed on data indicating that South Korea has the highest suicide rate of the OECD nations, a negative birth rate, and a divorce rate estimated at 30 percent. Enter next, though, two glimpses of possible deliverance: A memorial observance, open to all residents of the apartment building, is held by the new next-door neighbor for the previous tenant, whom he never knew but to whom he prostrates himself in a traditional gesture of full respect. And Chin-a overhears, in one of Sujin’s last telephone encounters before she cuts short her training and exits the company, her conversation with a caller with whom Chin-a is already familiar: a man who declares himself a time traveler and wants to make sure he has a usable credit card when he returns to the year 2002. Why 2002? That’s when Korea and Japan cohosted the World Cup. The time traveler is drawn there by images of the Korean soccer fan collective known as the Red Devils, “those throngs of happy people” in their red jerseys so visible to world viewers during this, Korea’s most successful World Cup performance. Hearing out the caller, Sujin says, “I’m not sure we can supply you with a credit card, but can I join you on your trip?”

An hour and a half into this 100-minute film we see Chin-a beginning a period of leave from her job. Will she return? Will she remain a loner? For the first time in the film she smiles, and for the first time she opens the blinds of the window of her stuffy bedroom to admit sunlight. Calls to Su-jin and her estranged father follow.

Aloners is a respectful, sensitive, nuanced, and ultimately satisfying portrayal of the difficulties of communicating meaningfully in an environment where a proliferation of electronic devices leaves people increasingly to their own (non-electronic) devices. I for one look forward to meeting Chin-a again—Aloners 2?

ALONERS can be viewed via VOD & Digital platforms including Amazon and iTunes.

Previous article“Renegade Edo and Paris” at the Seattle Asian Art Museum
Next articleA horrific study of clashing beliefs about marriage and parenthood on film