Does choosing to be alone truly mean we are better off? Hong Sung-eun, director of the thought-provoking melodramatic film “Aloners,” begs to differ. “We are all connected anyway, so a decent farewell is a mere act of courtesy to close out a chapter,” says Hong.
“Aloners” tells a story about Jina, a top-notched employee at a credit card company call center. She chooses a solitary lifestyle and avoids building relationships with the people around her until the death of her lonely neighbor pushes her to address these relationships one by one. While the theme of loneliness pulsates throughout the film, Jina’s outlook is juxtaposed against her father (played by Park Jeong-bak), her rookie coworker Sujin (Jung Da-eun) and her new neighbor Seonghun (Seo Hyun-woo). All serve as reminders of human connectivity, notably during arduous times.
Premiered at the 22nd Jeonju Intl. Film Festival, and sold by M-Line Distribution, “Aloners” scored two awards. Lead actress Gong Seung-yeon won best actor and Hong was presented the CGV Arthouse Award Distribution Support Prize. The film now plays at Toronto before segueing to San Sebastian.
Variety caught up with Hong Sung-eun to discuss her thoughts and messages conveyed through “Aloners” and on film directing.
Tell us the story of “Aloners” from your lens.
This film is about Jina, an employee at a credit card call center. She believes isolating herself makes for a more convenient life due to her past trauma and wounds. The sudden death of her lonely neighbor urges her to re-evaluate her way of life and gradually come to terms with her loneliness by addressing the people in her life.
What was the motivation behind Jina’s story?
Jina’s character derived from my fear of getting hurt by others, hence to counter the loneliness, I chose to engage in noises from devices instead. One day, I chanced upon a documentary about lonely death and ended up crying profusely for no reason. It made me rethink the idea of living alone as the realization of dying alone was scary. Jina is the character that encapsulates all of these thoughts.
Besides the theme of loneliness, the films seem to reflect multiple facets of Korean culture and society today. How did you work that into the film and what key takeaways would you like the international audience to have?
Korean culture is highly relationship-oriented. Until a few years ago, eating at a restaurant or traveling alone were unfathomable things to do. With these perception changes, I feel the conflict that comes along with it. The rising popularity of social networks and variety programs exhibiting the enjoyment of celebrities living alone may seem cool, but on the flip side, maybe living alone wasn’t a choice.
Hence, I added a scene referencing the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. The Korean soccer team was playing in the semi-finals and the entire country was buzzing with every household donning red shirts, gathering at the nearest big screen to watch the game. Without much explanation, the scene of patriotism and sea of red is deeply engraved in every Korean’s heart. I wanted to use that emotion to remind the audience of our connection to others, even if we believe pushing people away serves as a form of self protection.
Since we are all connected, the act of bidding others farewell is the least we could do for closure. Yet with Jina, she was hurt by others and faced feelings of abandonment at a young age. It is challenging for her to give others something she’s never received or experienced. Still, Jina strives to do that, albeit clumsily at the end of the film, which I hope will be warmly received by the international audience.
Your achievements thus far are already impressive since graduating from the Korean Academy of Film Arts (KAFA). What made you embark on this journey and how did it begin?
Though I love movies, I was working for a company unrelated to film for three years and decided to quit wondering what it’ll be like to be a film director. Hence I took the plunge. There was no dramatic reason, I simply wanted to realize my desire and imagination. The work and life of a film director is not easy, but I still like being one. Several new questions have arose and I’m excited to find answers through the process of making the next film.
What advice would you give other aspiring female directors?
I heard women should literally be like a ‘mad dog’ to become film directors. I reckon it meant being tough and aggressive towards counterparts. Admittedly, I’ve done so especially when others disrespect my opinion due to my gender, age or lack of experience. Perhaps exhibiting aggression makes up for my perceived “weaknesses.”
Regardless, I want to be a good person and respectable director. It’s probably more challenging for female directors than for their male counterparts. I hope other aspiring female directors can refute these existing perceptions and I will look back on their examples when I’m tired. Right now, I still have much to learn but will continue to do my best.