If I learned one thing from prior film festivals it’s “check out the South Korean films.” With that in mind, ALONERS was an easy sell for a virtual viewing.
ALONERS, according to the program notes, is based on the South Korean phenomenom of “holojok,” a phrase that describes the growing number of people who prefer to be left alone in one-person households. I think that’s a little misleading, as the focus is on one woman Yu Jina (Gong Seung-Yeon) and the film is so specific that reading into larger societal trends is kind of a fool’s errand. Rather, what we have is an intensely personal character study about a woman who through a pent up sense of familial betrayal has shut herself off from the world to avoid further pain.
We meet Jina at a breaking point. Her mother has recently died. She’s left to deal with her father, who had divorced her mother after an affair and recently reconciled. And Jina’s asked at work to step away from what she’s good at, dealing with the customers of a credit card company in a brusque but efficient manner over the phone, to train an intern. A bubbly, empathetic intern who you can immediately tell is too darn emotionally open to deal with irate customers. And, her equally loner neighbor is discovered dead, buried under stacks of porno magazines and rotting, and her new neighbor is a much friendlier sort who, gasp, tries to make friends with her.
There’s not much plot to ALONERS. It’s really about Jina coming to terms with the way the world is and whether she wants to open herself to it or continue running from it. A focus that’s understood implicitly by writer-director Hong Sung-eun who maintains Jina as the center of basically every scene. It’s efficient and progresses steadily with no real attempt to artificially up the stakes or scope. There’s a tremendous central performance by Gong Seung-Yeon that really makes the film work. Gong Seung-Yeon has comparatively few words, and even fewer with any emotion behind them, and she gives a performance largely consisting of reactions. Through her non-verbal performance, subtle and nuanced, Gong Seung-Yeon makes the inner life of the character abundantly clear. It’s evident that she’s not only alone but lonely. And, her grudge against her father’s betrayal is harming her as well. Even when options present themselves.
ALONERS isn’t ambitious enough to be a large crowd-pleaser, but it’s a perfectly cut and polished gem of a character study. Anchored by a knockout performance, it’s one of the more satisfying films of the festival, leaping over every challenge it sets for itself.
ALONERS is playing once more at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Thursday, May 5, 2022 at the Oriental Theater and it’s available on Milwaukee Film’s virtual component of the film festival. The 2022 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 21, 2022 until May 5, 2022. You can purchase tickets at mkefilm.org.