There’s nothing wrong with appreciating solitude, but in Hong Sung-Eun’s “Aloners” (혼자 사는 사람들 Honja saneun saramdeul) a young woman re-evaluates her life when her neighbor dies and no one notices for a full week.
Jin-A (Gong Seung-Yeon) had a nodding acquaintance with her male neighbor. He smoked on the walkway of their apartments, with his ashtray on the railing. They didn’t talk much, even though she smokes as well.
At work, Jin-A isn’t morosely silent. She works at a credit card call center and she is one of their top workers, knowing exactly what to say to comfort and sometime placate the callers. At work, she has no real friends and eats her lunch alone, choosing a noodle shop where she doesn’t even have to speak to someone to order her food and she slurps up her hot noodles in modest silence.
Her parents are alive, although her mother died and her father, who left her mother, had returned before her mother’s death. Now Jin-A will not inherit anything; it all goes to her father, a person with whom she barely has a relationship with.
Jin-A is, what in Korean, is called a holojok, a portmanteau for alone (holo) and job (group). These are people who live alone for different reasons, but the South Korean government has in the past few years shown concern from godoksa, people who die alone, much like Jin-A’s neighbor.
One article feels these lonely deaths are a result of a weakening of Confucian traditions. Others consider work conditions that may separate families. Going away to college can also be a factor. This is a trend that is expected to increase, according to an article in Korea Herald.:
According to Statistics Korea, there were about 5.6 million one-person households in Korea in 2017, accounting for about 29 percent of total households.
In 2000, the percentage of one-person households recorded 15.5 percent. Statistics Korea expected the rate to surpass 36 percent in 2045.
The government is so concerned that there is government support for mingling or social networking events. Although the film “Aloners” focuses on a woman, according to a 2018 Quartz article, solitary deaths is a predominately male problem with 62 percent of the godoksa cases middled-aged men.
- Lonely in Korea? You’re Not Alone (3 April 2019)
- Middle-Aged Men in South Korea Particularly at Risk of Dying Alone (22 March 2018)
- South Koreans Face Lonely Deaths are Confucian Traditions Fade. (20 January 2013)
In the film “Aloner,” Jin-A is asked to train a new employee as a new measure to increase retention. The recruit Sujin (Jung Da-eun) is chirpy and immediately wants to be friends. You can feel Jin-A slowly withdrawing, uncomfortable outside of her normal script of talking only business and eating alone, shutting out other people with her earbuds as she walks or commutes.
Conversely, Sujin doesn’t handle the customers well. She’s hesitant and awkward on the phone. I’m sure there’s a lot non-speakers of Korean are missing. Korean, like Japanese and Chinese, uses different words to express politeness and speaking to the customer would demand using terms one doesn’t normally use with friends. Someone told me (in Japanese) that one doesn’t truly become a member of society until one has held down a job.
Hong Seong-eun has constructed a sensitive look at a social problem, looking at what even an introvert can do to change. As Jin-A, Gong gives a nuanced subtle portrayal of a woman who has slowly withdrawn from the world with habitual pathways through life that have eroded into deep trenches.
Of course, Hong had no idea that her film would come out during an international pandemic, a time when people who have friends must find new ways to socialize with all normal routines disrupted. Even eating with co-workers isn’t a task taken lightly during these COVID-19 times. While many have turned to pets during the pandemic, no four-legged furry things are involved in Jin-A’s solution.
“Aloners” make its world premiere at the Jeonju International Film Festival in April 2021 where Gong received the Best Acting Award and Hong received the CGV Korean Independent Feature Distribution Awards both in the Korean Film Competition. It was part of the Toronto International Film Festival.