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Aloners

The bittersweet Korean drama “Aloners” works best when it’s a character study about an isolated thirtysomething’s behavior instead of whatever her creators think should be done about it. Call center ace Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) doesn’t get completely pigeonholed by her age or stereotypically millennial intolerances until her story wraps up, at which point her problems get swept under the rug for the sake of a tidy sort of catharsis. Before then, “Aloners” humanizes Jina’s standoffish but relatable attitude by suggesting that it’s not just one thing that makes her act like she does—it’s everything.

Jina is a little too good at her customer service job, which might be surprising if you saw her outside of work. She keeps to herself, blocking out noise with her earbud headphones, smoking alone, and watching cooking shows and other online series at her regular lunch break ramen shop counter. She’s still the best at what she does because she doesn’t react emotionally to her obnoxious clients, who usually call to complain about their credit cards. Jina sticks to her script of prompts. She’s efficient and polite, and her performance stands out to her needy and otherwise impersonal boss (Kim Hannah). So it’s up to Jina to train wide-eyed twentysomething Sujin (Jung Da-eun), who’s inexperienced and a little too clingy.

Then again, what isn’t too much, according to Jina? The title “Aloners” is misleading because the movie’s almost exclusively about Jina, not Jina and Sujin, or her boss, her chatty estranged father (Park Jeong-hak), or her awkward next-door neighbor (Kim Mo-beom). Most of these supporting characters don’t have names because they don’t play major parts in Jina’s life; only Sujin makes an impression, mostly because she shares the same cubicle as Jina, which leads to some sitcom awkwardness (try this breath spray, you’ll like it!).

There are a few moments where these side characters try to coax Jina out of her shell. Her refusal to leave isn’t as remarkable as her creators’ refusal to make her. She talks to her unfortunate neighbor with the same well-oiled aloofness she uses to escape deeper conversations with her father and her boss. Jina’s one-sided relationship with her dad sometimes looks like the elephant in the room that explains away her over-sensitivity. It never does, not even when she finally learns how to deal with him and his breathless one-sided conversations. She forces her way through awkward conversations with such well-honed skill that it sometimes seems effortless. It’s the world that’s unreasonable, not Jina or her careful, minimal engagement.

It is frustrating to see Jina’s creators try to pull their stubborn antiheroine out of the corner that she finally realizes she’s painted herself into. Until then, Jina occupies a cramped emotional pocket universe of her own. Working this routine—work, smoke, lunch, more work, then a microwaveable meal and TV before bed—can relieve everyday problems. But not always.

Sujin eventually cracks up during a phone call with a rude customer, so Jina steps in to help her. And while Jina goes through the motions of apologizing to the obnoxious caller, Sujin’s voice floats above her reluctant mentor’s call center banter: “Why should I apologize?” Sujin whispers. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

For a while, Sujin’s question provides the clearest and hardest dramatic guideline for Jina and her story. The non-committal way that she handles her problems is obviously flawed, but her actions still not only make sense, based on the information available to her (and us) but also credibly reflect how imposing the world outside of her head can be.

Nobody needs to be told that working—and socializing and living—today can be alienating. Rather, “Aloners” goes deeper than most other similar dramas by showing how various social entanglements ask us to quietly accept inane or unfair social obligations. I really admire how hard writer/director Hong Seong-eun worked to keep Jina elusive, not only because it makes “Aloners" more dramatic (and often quite funny) but also because it shows an unusual respect and unsentimental attachment for Jina, a very real character who could have easily seemed ungenerous or self-absorbed.

Jina is not a problem to be solved, even though the end of “Aloners” suggests otherwise. The best scenes in Hong’s movie still reflect the ambient dread and solitary ecstasies of being a loner, especially if the lifestyle you’ve half-chosen and half-fallen into makes being apart from others seems like the best possible coping strategy. There’s nothing wrong with how Jina’s story ends, but it’s even more thrilling to see Hong let Jina be alone without prescribing what’s really going on with her. There are obvious reasons for and answers to Jina’s problems, but they never completely explain her away.

Now playing in theaters. 

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Film Credits

Aloners movie poster

Aloners (2023)

91 minutes

Cast

Gong Seung-yeon as Ji-na

Jeong Da-eun as Soo-jin

Seo Hyun-woo as Seong-hoon

Kim Hae-na as Team Leader

Kim Mo-beom as Neighbour

Park Jeong-hak as Father

Ju Seok-tae as Lawyer Jeong

Ahn Jeong-bin as Plainclothes Police Officer

Kwak Min-kyu as Time Machine Man (voice)

Director

Writer

Director of Photography

Editor

Original Music Composer

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