Aloners (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): She prefers to be alone…

South Korean independent film “Aloners” revolves around the daily life of one young woman who simply prefers to be alone. While she is not exactly a likable person, the movie takes patience in observing not only her loneliness but also what is quietly churning behind that, and we come to understand her to some degree while also touched by how she eventually takes a few active steps for herself around the end of the story.

At first, the movie slowly establishes its heroine’s rather drab lifestyle. As a call center employee of some credit card company, Jin-ah (Gong Seung-yeon) has been pretty efficient and exemplary, but she is not particularly social to say the least. For example, she prefers to have lunch alone in contrast to many of her fellow call center employees, and she only talks with her supervisor sometimes when they smoke together outside.

In case of her private life, Jin-ah lives alone in a cheap apartment where she simply spends some time alone before her sleeping time, and she does not interact much with other residences in the apartment building. Whenever she leaves or returns, she often comes across some lad living right next to her apartment, but she is not interested at all in getting to know him, and it gradually becomes clear to us that this young man really needs someone to talk with.

Meanwhile, we slowly get to know a bit about something which has bothered Jin-ah for a while. A few months ago, her mother, who came to live with her father again several years ago despite their divorce resulted from his infidelity, suddenly died, and Jin-ah is not so pleased about how her father is handling the aftermath. He does not look that devastated, and he is already ready to move onto whatever will come next during the remaining years of his life. Having secretly been monitoring his domestic life via a hidden online camera, Jin-ah comes to resent her father more than before, and she is more displeased when he often calls her via her mother’s smartphone.

Nevertheless, Jin-ah keeps her appearance as impeccable as possible at her workplace, and then there comes an unexpected assignment for her. A new employee named Soo-jin (Jung Da-eun) is about to begin her first working day, and Jin-ah’s director supervisor assigns Jin-ah to training Soo-jin during next several days. Jin-ah reluctantly begins the training session with Soo-jin, and Soo-jin is quite ready to be nice to those callers as well as Jin-ah.

Of course, Soo-jin comes to stumble more than during the following train sessions where she has to handle many different kinds of callers. There is a crazy man who frequently calls for a loony question involved with time machine, and that is a merely mild case compared to a number of nasty callers appearing in the film, who are, I assure you, not so different from what millions of call center employees have to handle everyday in reality. In case of one particular caller, this obnoxious person demands Jin-ah to read every detail of her monthly credit card bill just for checking whether there is anything wrong, and I must tell you that this caller also annoyed me a lot during my viewing.

It looks like Soo-jin should consider seriously about looking for some other job, but she tries her best anyway, and she also attempts to befriend Jin-ah, though that is the last thing Jin-ah wants for now due to her increasing emotional turmoil. She keeps watching her father while not telling anything to him about her secret online camera, and there is a somber but emotionally tense scene where she phlegmatically but bitterly watches him having a cheerful meeting with his recent church members in his residence.

As Jin-ah’s mind becomes more troubled, something quite unexpected happens in her apartment building. More withdrawn than before, she cannot help but become more annoyed by Soo-jin, and Soo-jin also seems to sense that she is not welcomed much by Jin-ah or others as their workplace. During one calm but painful scene, she comes to have sort of mental breakdown while handling one of those usual problematic callers, and that is when Jin-ah belatedly comes to realize that Jin-ah is not so different from her despite their personality difference.

The screenplay by director/writer Hong Sung-eun, who made a feature film debut here, does not explain much what makes its heroine tick, but it is still interesting as an observational character study, and Gong Seung-yeon did a stellar job of suggesting a lot while not directly signifying anything on the surface. While steadily maintaining her character’s frigid appearance and composure, Gong ably conveys to us her character’s gradual mental implosion, and we are not so surprised when her character suddenly reaches her breaking point later in the story.

Gong is also supported well by several other good cast members in the movie. While Jung Da-eun holds her own place well besides Gong during their several keys scenes in the film, Kim Hae-na is solid as Jin-ah’s demanding supervisor, and Seo Hyun-woo brings some warmth to the story as a new neighbor who does not mind interacting more with Jin-ah and other residents in the apartment building.

Overall, “Aloners” will demand some patience from you due to its dry mood and slow narrative, but it is still worthwhile to watch as a modest but engaging character drama, and you may reflect on yourself a bit if you have lived alone like I have during last several years. I do not have much problem with my current status of life, and I do become lonely from time to time in my one-room residence, and I guess I should say something nice to the other residents in the building whenever I come across any of them.

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