TIFF 2021: Carolyn Talks ‘Aloners’ with Writer-Director Hong Sung-eun

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Aloners

Alone. Isolated. Lonely. Grief. In her feature film, debut writer and director Hong Sun-eun expertly crafts a visual narrative of the emotional and mental state of Aloners, the title of her film and the word she uses to describe people who have chosen to live solitary lives. Aloners screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery, TIFF 21 category where Hong Sung-eun is featured as a ‘Director to Watch’.

In South Korea the word holojok – a combination of holo meaning alone, and jok the word for a group of people, is used to describe those who choose to withdraw from society and live their lives alone, as the film’s leading character Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) has chosen to do. In her first role as the lead in a feature film, Gong Seung-yeon gives an achingly familiar and refined performance as a young woman who’s chosen to shrink her world down to just her in an effort to shield herself from the hurt and disappointment of losing loved ones.

As a director, Hong Sung-eun captures the feeling of loneliness Jina – and those like her -experience all too perfectly. The sense of isolation is almost palpable with the dark and somber atmosphere of her sets, and as a writer, the words of her characters are never without meaning and intention. In my interview with her for Carolyn Talks…we spoke about how she’s able to convey these complex human emotions on screen.

Writer’s note: This interview was conducted via email, with questions and answers translated between Korean and English by Junsoo Kim.

Carolyn Hinds: Firstly, congratulations on making such an impressive and I think very emotionally honest film for your feature debut. I really enjoyed and related to the story, and Gong Seung-yeon’s performance is great!

For my first question, I’d like to ask how you personally define loneliness as I think it can mean different things to different people. For me there’s a difference in being alone and being lonely. To me, loneliness is more about the inability to connect with the people around me, no matter if I have a close personal bond or relationship. Sometimes it can be a result of depression, or just because of certain circumstances that may occur. What does loneliness mean to you?

Hong Sung-eun: For me, loneliness is something inevitable. It is something all humans are destined to encounter. We all feel lonely because I’m not you and you aren’t me; no one will think and feel the same way I do. Hence, I don’t want to regard loneliness as something to avoid. I want to think that everyone feels lonely. I feel people should be lenient on themselves this way. Ones who tend to be harsh to other people are those who actually feel very lonely and feel hurt most of the time. How can we treat them harshly [to be normal] when they are so hurt and worn?

CH: Choosing to have the opening shot be of Jina (Gong Seung-yeon) looking at her phone, while doing her job as a customer service representative told me right away that she was someone who was disconnected from her surroundings, never gave her full attention to what was happening around her, nor to the people she spoke with. Why start the film this way?

HSE: Customer Service Representative is a job with a high degree of emotional labor. I imagined Jina as a CSR who does her job very well without getting much stress. I also imagined what kind of person could do so.

The voices of the customers Jina responds to are just voices; there isn’t any form of human behind the voice. Hence, Jina can do her job well like a machine without any influences from customers’ emotions. I felt this is the best way to introduce Jina as the movie begins.

CH: From the very beginning I felt a specific sense of isolation the way Jina experienced it, which I think was perfect to help me relate to her. To some, her withdrawn personality may come across as her being rude or cold, but I saw it as something she may not even be aware she’s doing. It’s as though creating this barrier between her, and the world had become second nature.

HSE: Speaking from Jina’s perspective, she doesn’t intend to be rude to or hurt others. She wants people to let her be in her own world of isolation, but people around her don’t let her do so.

For Jina, relationships have always been a scar. It has always been better for her to be in the digital world which she made, instead of unpredictable relationships. Those people might feel she is too cold and rude, but she had to make a huge wall as she is a soft character who has always been hurt by others.

CH: I want to get into how you show grief and its connection to loneliness in Aloners, which I saw as two emotions being interconnected through Jina’s disconnection from her surroundings, and her inability to grieve the loss of her mother. She never really processed her grief, and I would say didn’t even allow or gave herself permission to grieve because it was a result of her emotional defense mechanism.

Can you speak a bit about connecting these two emotions in the story?

HSE: Jina never got a good farewell from those leaving her. Farewell has always been violent, and Jina never got to say goodbye slowly and how to grieve loss from farewell. She stays still during her mother’s funeral because that’s the best way of farewell for her. Not accepting the feeling of sadness or emptiness, she remains the same way encountering farewell to remind herself ‘No one can influence me.’ This is because Jina is very vulnerable to loneliness; she didn’t get to learn how to accept loss when someone who became significant to her leaves her.

For Jina, farewell is completely cutting out the person who left her without leaving any trace. Farewell has been a very scary concept, so making new relationships must be horrifying for Jina. I wanted to teach Jina how to deal with farewell. I wanted to portray Jina getting to know that someone who bids farewell can still be important, and farewell doesn’t mean complete disconnection. Saying goodbye is to accept the grief fully and by doing so, find out how you are connected with the person. I think this connectivity can give comfort in our solitude.

CH: Though it’s not very obvious from the onset, I think Jina in a way also grieves the loss of her father. Despite him being alive and present, there’s an obvious tension in their relationship and a resentment she has for things he did in the past. To me this was a very important element of the film because it speaks to how we can miss and grieve relationships, especially those between child and parent, that have been broken. Tell me a bit about putting this into the story.

HSE: For Jina, her dad is an unsolved question. He left all of a sudden when Jina was in her childhood. Her dad didn’t exist in her life, but then he returned. He now wants Jina to recognize him as dad for living with Jina’s mom, yet he doesn’t mention anything about hurting Jina as a kid.

The reason Jina looks at her dad through the home camera must be the confusion from all the circumstances. It’s difficult for her to accept her dad, and time has flown too far to talk about things from back then. Still, her dad seems totally okay and happy with all these things. I wanted to put her dad in the story since her dad is one of the most important factors of her self-imposed isolation. Jina’s indecisiveness is how she deals with all those events regarding the relationships around her.

CH: I think one of the things in your direction that makes Jina relatable is how for most of her scenes she’s framed at the center. Because she’s the focus we can’t help by see everything that she wants to say but doesn’t, or the emotions she’s struggling with.

To me the first time she’s become aware of just how withdrawn she’s become withdrawn is during the conversation her trainee Park Sujin (Jeong Da-eun) has with the customer about the  2002 Korea vs. Japan World Cup game. It seemed as thought that’s when Jina realized she too misses moments of camaraderie with other people.

HSE: At first, my goal was to portray Jina recognizing the world she lives in. She is not interested in where she is and what kind of people are in the space she is in. I wanted to share with the audience Jina’s feeling where she feels unfamiliar with the space she has been all the time after a certain event or moment. For Jina’s everyday life, the camera would follow Jina’s eye. It will turn to things around her when there is a crack in the everyday life.

I focused on making more and more cracks to Jina’s monotonous life in terms of production. When Sujin gets a call from a person who says they want to go back to World Cup 2002, Jina experiences a major psychological blow. Experiences like the World Cup can easily bring a sense of belonging, and World Cup 2002 was a huge moment for Koreans. Also, Sujin has become more significant to Jina.

CH: There were two scenes that stuck out to me; the first is when Jina’s apartment shakes as though there was an earth tremor, but she doesn’t react as most people would by perhaps checking their phone for a new update or looking outside. She just goes back to eating her food as though nothing happened. But it actually ended up being a very subtly pivotal moment in the film because that was the moment Jina’s life started to slowly change without it being too obvious.

The second takes place at the lunch counter after Sujin leaves the company. In that moment, for the first time Jina seems to struggle with eating and can’t finish. I thought maybe the mouth spray she used had altered the taste, then figured it was more about the memory of Sujin herself, and the last phone conversation she had with the customer.

Gong Seung-yeon gives a very nuanced performance in these types of small scenes, can you go into casting her, then directing her for the film and if there is any one of her scenes that personally stands out to you?

HSE: The scene of apartment shaking portrays the death of neighbor by falling under bookshelf. It signals Jina will encounter life-changing event which she doesn’t really recognize but she can’t avoid it changing her.

Sujin’s departure shouldn’t be a big deal for Jina. Jina wouldn’t have welcomed Sujin in her life and she isn’t supposed to care about the existence of Sujin. However, Jina’s life already got to have cracks. Sujin’s absences became the biggest cracks. Jina tries to go back to her routine as if nothing happened, but it’s not easy. Hence, Jina might be tired of food all of sudden which she just had without caring about taste.

Gong Seung-yeon has become a comrade to me during filming. Gong and I shared enthusiasm for this movie, and it showed during filming so I could trust her. I personally like her acting in the scene where Jina calls Sujin. Gong’s acting in this scene was very important as this scene was the bridge from scar, isolation, and loneliness to farewell in the movie. I was worried with this scene a lot because it had to be taken during earlier stage of production because of scheduling issues. I remember I was satisfied with the acting of Gong Seung-yeon and Jeong Da-eun for this scene.

CH: At the credit card company where she works and ramen restaurant she frequents, Jina is also isolated, but not in the most obvious sense. Even though she’s surrounded by people, and is constantly speaking to customers, her cubicle and headphones kind of create a little bubble for. What lead to your decision of using these kinds of environments for her place of employment and eating?

 HSE: Jina is uncomfortable with people next to her. She doesn’t want to talk with them and end up making relationships. Being completely alone is the best for Jina and she would have loneliness go away with her phone and television.

It’s more comfortable for her to talk to customer over headphone than to Sujin. She doesn’t want to make any relationship and she can just do whatever customers want her to do. This place must have been the best place for Jina before Sujin started working.

CH: Maybe I’m thinking too much, but every time Jina eats lunch at the lunch counter, her jacket is hanging behind her, which I interpreted as her loneliness always being present, even when she was surrounded by other people. Would you say that’s a fair interpretation of those scenes?

HSE: I didn’t intend to give any meaning to the jacket; it was just hanging behind. I do agree with you that loneliness is always present with Jina. She is always with her earphone and smartphone to shade it out.

CH: For the set design the most interesting locations to me are her parent’s home, and the office. With her mother’s apartment, it feels very bare and plain. The furniture and flooring are all brown and made me think of Jina’s coat which is also brown, and what I saw as a physical representation of her mental and emotional state as being very somber and depressed. Including the scene where we first see her cry, stopped next to an empty bookcase and sofa without cushions

For me they feel linked because her loneliness and grief began at home, but for you, are the set design of her parent’s apartment and her coat actually connected?

HSE: I liked the site of Jina’s home because it had some sense of dimness and fadedness. The sofa in the scene belonged to the site as well. I thought the sense of old and wornness would go well with the image of Jina’s mom.

I also wanted Jina to feel familiar with her mother’s home considering she visited for the first time in a while. I did work on the color so that Jina and the house do not look separate, since this is the place Jina would feel nostalgia even if she might not visit often.

CH: And speaking of her clothing, apart from the coat, Jina’s wardrobe went through their own transition from bland clothing in dull colors, to turtlenecks then big, patterned plaid shirts, and eventually a brown and white stripped sweater with a burnt orange cardigan over it. I love that when she puts the new sweater on, she pulls back the curtain to let the sunlight in, literally taking her room out of its dark depressive atmosphere into a brighter new day.

It was a great visual metaphor for her having a brighter and more positive outlook on life as she’s finally making the effort to come out of her self-imposed emotional isolation. Please go into using her clothing as visual and that scene in particular as cues of her changing emotional growth.

HSE: It was hard to show Jina changing all of sudden around the end of the movie. She has had the same lifestyle for quite a while, and events she encountered in the movie aren’t of a big deal to be honest. I wanted to show small yet consistent changes and figured clothing can represent this the best. I wanted the change from dark and monotonous clothing to warm and bright clothing.

I wanted Jina to wear more fresh clothing towards the end and also wanted her to get rid of the jacket she wears everywhere. I prepared a coat with fresher color, yet I couldn’t convince myself to have Jina wear this. I questioned myself how should the degree of Jina’s change within the movie be? So, I ended up compromising with orange cardigan – the one Jina wore on the last day of work.

CH: I noticed from the beginning Jina leaves her TV on when she’s not home, is this something she does sub-consciously to make it seem like her family is waiting for her when she comes home?

HSE: I think it’s a way to not think about her loneliness. I think people who feel lonely hate quietness and darkness, as they only got themselves without anything else. Jina turns on the television when leaving home for the same reason she wears earphones all the time; she wants noisiness to avoid looking at herself or realizing her loneliness.

CH: I like how you hold the camera on objects to make the viewer stare at them the same way Jina does, like the bowl of noodles or the computer monitor, was this your intention, and if so was it a characteristic of the story you developed before or during filming?

HSE: This movie, for the most part, was taken according to previously planned conti [storyboard]. I made a conti [storyboard] to film according to how Jina perceives things around her. There wasn’t any space to put more objective insert, since it wasn’t how Jina sees the world. Instead, I decided to film things from Jina’s point of view in detail.

The bowl at the pho restaurant had to be taken because of the moment with Jina throwing up while having pho. Jina doesn’t need anything in the restaurant except pho and her phone, and she doesn’t see anything else. This is the reason the scenes at the pho restaurant in the beginning of the movie only exist with Jina’s frontal shot and the pho. However, it had to change as Sujin follows; the full shot of the pho restaurant is shown only then. By the time Jina throws up the pho, her original lifestyle was broken; only Jina doesn’t know. The pho bowl won’t look the same and having the food isn’t the same as well. I needed those inserts from Jina’s point of view to reflect changes in Jina’s mood.

CH: For a lot of the scenes Jina is shown focusing on her phone whether she’s at work, riding the bus, or walking down her the hallway of her apartment building, which I’ll confess I do a lot as well. I thought it was fascinating and curious that she even prefers to watch YouTube videos other people eating while she eats and even does it at the restaurant, where she could interact with other customers but chooses not to. It’s like she was looking to have those kinds of dining conversations with people but didn’t know how to.

Is this something you did often during your twenties as you yourself went through a period of self-imposed isolation as you mentioned during your introduction of the film?

HSE: I still do the same occasionally. I don’t think about what I’m eating or even get aware of eating alone when I use my smartphone while eating. You must know it gets tiring when you have meals and talk to people at the same time, yet you might feel weird or alone when you eat silently. You have someone to talk on screen whom you can easily control. You might have to give up your preference; you have food just to get full. You don’t feel like you are in the restaurant. Jina going to the same pho restaurant all the time means this.

CH: What I think is compelling about your use of technology such as cell phones, TVs and camera, is how you show that for some people modern technology is an interactive tool, like friends may share headphones to listen to what’s happening on the screen, but for others it’s a way to disconnect from everything, and may be a hindrance instead?

HSE: I doubt whether these technologies help us communicate better. Don’t people only communicate with those with the same perspectives or share opinions only when they want to? I feel it’s getting more and more exclusive and narrow-minded. It’s getting easier to block those who don’t agree with you. Of course, there are some right functions.

CH: Can you speak a bit about this particular detail with the cell phones and internet, and your own thoughts on it from a social perspective?

HSE: I didn’t just want to portray these technologies with a negative image in the movie. It’s too stereotypical to say ‘people can really communicate only when they meet in person.’ I think people can do a real communication through technologies when some circumstances are met like people getting sincere to each other.

Jina’s phone helps her avoid or block communication when she expresses anger to her dad through the phone. It also helps her share her sincerity to Sujin when she manages to call Sujin. Home camera at Jina’s mother’s home can bring obsession to view what’s in the camera but it also makes Jina think she can accept her dad with having some distances from him.

CH: Since making the film, is the preoccupation with the phone or TV something you work on to improve, as you may be more aware of it now? I myself have been trying not to give my phone too much attention but I’ll admit it’s hard because of being indoors more now due to the pandemic, and social media is my main way of connecting with people.

HSE: I am conscious about my usage of the phone, and I put a lot of effort to rely less on phones or television. I should say it’s not easy though. I might spend time on YouTube for hours because of the algorithm. I have an app on my phone to track my time on smartphone so that I can check how many hours I use my phone in a day.

CH: By its nature and definition loneliness is a solitary thing that people experience, but because of the pandemic it’s become a sort of community phenomenon, which I know sounds weird, but I think people are more open to discussing our emotions now. Do you find that to be the case in South Korea?

HSE: I thought of making this movie because of some phenomena in Korea called Honbap and Honsul, which mean eating alone or drinking alone at a restaurant or bar. A television show portraying daily lives of celebrities who live alone has been and is still popular. I felt this is some sort of forced happiness. If doing things alone isn’t a big deal, why do people make posts of themselves doing so on social media? I felt there is a pressure for people to feel happy and enjoy their lives even if they might be alone. It might perhaps be a phenomenon made by those who want to feel free of relationships.

I think people get more tired from relationships as they get broader, yet people also need to learn how to deal with loneliness more and more. They might be alone because they get tired of relationships with other people, but it’s not easy because of loneliness.

I wanted to start from acknowledging we are all lonely. I wanted to make an ‘uncool’ movie for those ‘cool’ people who try to say they aren’t lonely. I wanted to tell a real story stemming from my own loneliness. I feel that many people in Korea are understanding and empathizing with the movie. They were actually lonely that they would say they are okay being alone.

CH: I’m curious to know if you were to do a second film showing us where Jina is now, and included the pandemic into the storyline, do you think she would actually be more open to communicating with people, or would she have withdrawn and become closed off again? I ask because at the end we see her making the effort to communicate with and befriend her supervisor and new neighbor, and I thought it would be a shame if she were to lose those developing friendships.

 I’d like to think that the phone becomes a way for her to reach out to more people. Perhaps she starts her own YouTube channel where she chats about her favorite dishes and helps others not to feel lonely by sharing her own experiences with it.

HSE: I don’t know how Jina would live after the movie, but I think she will continue what she’s been doing around the end of the movie for a while. She might open the curtain or turn off the television. Changing lifestyle will be more difficult than she expected. I think she will slowly become someone who knows how to care about herself (i.e., her loneliness) instead of focusing on relationships with other people too much.

It’s a good idea for Jina to communicate through YouTube. Jina could help people by talking about loneliness (which people don’t really talk about out loud) and hurt from relationships.

CH: In your introduction at the beginning of the film for TIFF, you said you still didn’t have all of the answers you were looking for. Would you mind sharing exactly what questions you were looking for answers to, and if you’ve found the answers you wanted or gained a better understanding?

HSE: When it was being aired in Korean cinemas, an audience asked how Jina’s life would be beyond the movie. I didn’t have any words, so I answered I am wondering too. ‘ALONERS’ is the question about and answer to my feeling of loneliness at 33 years old. The answer to the same question might be different years later. The question itself might be different as well. This is what I mean by I still haven’t found all the answers I’m looking for.