In this interview, director Hong Sung-eun talks about her feature debut Aloners, a film that’s about loneliness, connection, and learning how to say goodbye.
Aloners (Hon-ja-sa-neun Sa-ram-deul) is an impressive film, even more so if one considers it’s director Hong Sung-eun ‘s feature directorial debut. Revolving around a girl (played by Gong Seung-yeon, also in her feature film debut) who has mastered the art of being alone and not avoiding all sorts of connections to others, the film deals with many themes, such as the way we process grief, the painful experiences that shape us, the difficulties of dealing with family, and the universal truths we keep hidden, such as the fact that a life lived in loneliness is not all it’s cracked up to be. In the occasion of Aloners’ premiere at the Torino Film Festival, we spoke with director Hong Song-eun: here’s what she told us on making this very personal movie and showing it to international audiences, what the film is about, what’s next, and more.
Hong Sung-eun on Aloners‘ Origins, Inspiration and International Premiere
Congratulations for Aloners‘ premiere at the Torino Film Festival! The film has had a very successful festival run this year: what does it feel like to be able to show it to international audiences?
Hong Sung-eun: It is quite surprising. I didn’t expect there would be chances that the film would be screened outside of Korea.
많이 신기합니다. 이렇게 한국 밖에서도 상영할 기회가 생길 것이라고는 잘 생각하지 않았어요.
What was the inspiration behind Aloners, and how did this project come to life?
Hong Sung-eun: This film was inspired by my very personal concerns that have started in my 20s. After earning my own living, I have thought a lot about what it could mean to be ‘living alone well,’ since no one could stay with me forever.
이 영화는 제가 20대부터 지금껏 계속 해오고 있는, 가장 개인적인 고민에서 비롯되었어요. 독립을 하고 혼자 살면서부터, 어떻게 해야 혼자서도 잘 살 수 있는지에 대한 생각을 많이 했거든요. 누군가 항상 제 옆에 있어줄 수 있는 건 아니니까요.
Aloners: Learning How to Say Goodbye
What is the film about and what is the message you would like people to get from it?
Hong Sung-eun: The film is about Jina learning how to say farewell. The biggest reason for Jina’s isolated life is that she couldn’t receive the proper farewells that she should have received [when she was a child, and her father abandoned her]. So, for Jina, parting with someone is always a violent and sudden incident: [since she wants to avoid feeling the pain of losing someone,] she doesn’t want to be the one who creates this painful situation by herself. If she doesn’t establish connections with anyone in the first place and avoids relationships altogether, then she doesn’t have to say goodbye at all.
이 영화는 ‘진아’가 작별인사를 배워가는 이야기예요. ‘진아’의 폐쇄적인 삶의 가장 큰 원인은 그가 살면서 응당 받아야 할 작별인사를 받지 못했다는 것에 있거든요. ‘진아’에게 이별이란 항상 난폭하고 갑작스러운 것이었기 때문에, 그는 그런 괴로운 이별의 상황을 만들지 않으려고 하는 거예요. 애초에 그 누구와도 중요한 관계를 맺지 않는다면, 이별도 겪을 필요가 없잖아요.
I wanted Jina to be able to be the first person to say farewell to someone else. I wanted to tell her that, when we meet someone and then part, it’s all about just saying goodbye and wishing them well, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship loses all meaning: all meaningful relationships remain with us, and become a part of us.
저는 그런 ‘진아’가 결국 누군가에게 먼저 잘 가라고 인사를 할 수 있게 되었으면 했어요. 누군가와 만났다가 헤어질 때에는 인사를 하고 잘 보내주면 되는 거라고, 작별은 기존의 관계가 무로 돌아가는 것이 아니라고, 그런 이야기를 해주고 싶었습니다. 잘 맺고 또 잘 헤어진 관계는 우리 안에 남아 우리의 일부가 된다고요.
Can you talk about Gina’s relationship with her father?
Hong Sung-eun: Jina’s relationship with her father is the first parting that Jina experienced, and it’s a farewell that happened suddenly and violently. Many things must have happened that have made Gina the person she is today, but the most important one came from her father.
아버지는 진아가 겪은 첫 이별이에요. 앞서 이야기했다시피 제대로 된 작별인사도 없이, 갑자기 난폭하게 이루어진 이별이죠. 진아가 현재의 모습이 되기까지 많은 일이 있었겠지만, 가장 큰 이유는 아버지로부터 왔어요.
Throughout the film, Gina actively tries to neutralise her relationship with her father. She treats him as he were nothing, or as if he didn’t provoke any emotion in her, because that’s what parting with someone means to her: the moment you say farewell, everything that ever happened with that person becomes a void. But it doesn’t work at all. We cannot be separated from other people: no matter what Gina does, nothing could change the fact that he’s her father, that he hurt her deeply in the past, and that he has some explanation to do to her. Gina cannot live as if nothing had happened between them in the past, so she has basically been trying to do the impossible. That’s why Gina’s emotions began to seethe when they parted, and will eventually explode.
진아는 그래서 아버지와의 관계를 적극적으로 무화시키려고 해요. 애초에 상관 없는, 자신에게 아무런 감정도 일으키지 않는 사람처럼 대하려고 애쓰죠. 진아에게 이별이란 그런 거거든요. 헤어지는 순간, 상대방과 있었던 모든 일들이 다 공허해지는 거요. 하지만 그게 될 리가 없죠. 우리는 그 누구와도 아무 상관없어질 수 없어요. 진아가 어떻게 하건, 그가 진아의 아버지라는 사실, 그리고 진아에게 큰 상처를 줬고 그에 대해 설명해야 된다는 사실은 변하지 않아요. 그건 없는 셈 칠 수가 없는 일인데, 진아는 애초에 불가능한 걸 하고 있는 거죠. 거기에서 진아의 감정들이 정제되지 못하고 들끓다가 결국 폭발하게 되는 거고요.
Hong Sung-eun on Jina, Aloners‘ Protagonist
Jina is so well-crafted as a character! She really manages to convey so many different emotions to us throughout the film: she’s very detached and “emotionless” when she works at the call centre, looks at her phone/TV and talks to people, but we also get to see her in private, in her most vulnerable and authentic moments, when her personality and emotions really come through.
How did you work on creating the character?
Hong Sung-eun: Jina actually has the kind of attitude towards life that I’ve been pursuing for years. Since I’m fragile and I get hurt easily, I wanted to live like Jina: I wanted to block everyone who attempted to come closer to me and to become an important person in my life. Then I realised that, if I didn’t let anyone come close to me, I would end up being completely and perfectly alone. Jina is a character that I drew from within.
‘진아’는 제가 몇 년간 지향했던 태도를 실제로 살아내고 있는 사람이에요. 제가 여리고 상처를 잘 받는 성격이다 보니, 그렇게 살고 싶었거든요. 아무도 나에게 다가와서 나에게 중요한 사람이 되지 못하게 막고 싶었어요. 그럼 그 누구에게도 영향받지 않고, 또 영향을 끼치지도 않고, 제가 온전하고 완벽한 혼자가 된다고 착각했거든요. ‘진아’는 제 안에서 퍼올린 캐릭터예요.
How was Gong Seung-yeon cast for the role?
Hong Sung-eun: At first, I didn’t know Gong that well, actually: Gong works mainly in TV dramas, and I don’t watch TV dramas very often. But many of my acquaintances recommended her to me, and told me that she was very interested in working in feature films as well, so I met with her. As we met and talked to each other, I came to see different sides of her, not just the lively, romance heroine that we’d usually see her play on TV. She’s a very calm and prudent person, and, as I witnessed Gong’s earners passion, it came to me that we could create Gina together.
전 사실 처음에는 공승연 배우를 잘 몰랐어요. 공 배우는 주로 TV 드라마에서 활동하던 사람이고, 전 TV 드라마를 잘 안 봤거든요. 하지만 그가 영화 작업에 관심이 많다며 제 주변의 지인들이 그를 많이 추천해줘서 만나보게 됐어요. 만나서 같이 이야기를 하다 보니, 평소에 TV에서 보던 발랄한 로맨스 여주인공의 모습만이 아닌, 더 풍부한 모습을 보게 되었고요. 차분하고 무게감이 있는 사람이에요. 공 배우의 진지한 열정을 보고 같이 ‘진아’를 만들어갈 수 있겠다 싶었습니다.
Loneliness and Time Machine Builders
Aloners‘ other characters are all very important, because they show how different kinds of people react to being alone, but that they all share the same need to communicate and survive (and possibly, sadness). The dead neighbour, Sujin and Jina’s father are the obvious examples of people who are also mostly alone, but there are also Jina’s manager, the new neighbour, the customers who phone the call center, and even Jina’s mother.
Can you talk about what these characters represent?
Hong Sung-eun: The reason why the film is called Aloners, and not Aloner, is that most of the people in the film live alone. I wanted to depict how each of them responded to loneliness in their own way. I don’t think loneliness is something we can choose or avoid. I think it’s just everyone’s fate.
애초에 영화의 제목을 ‘혼자 사는 사람’이 아닌, ‘혼자 사는 사람들’로 지은 건, 이 영화에 나오는 대부분의 사람들이 혼자서 살아가고 있기 때문이었어요. 다들 각자의 방식으로 그 외로움에 대응하는 모습을 조금씩 스케치해주고 싶었어요. 전 외로움은 우리가 선택을 하거나 피할 수 있는 게 아니라고 생각하거든요. 그냥 모든 사람의 운명인 것 같아요.
One of Gina’s customers at the call centre has been labelled as “mentally ill” because he claims to have invented a time machine and wants to go back to the “throngs of happy people”, but he actually sounds very sane to me! What is the symbolic meaning of this character?
These days, time machine builders are a bit out of style. These days, it’s considered cool to live alone and not care about others, while expressing one’s loneliness or one’s desire to build a connection with others is viewed as a weakness. That’s why he’s portrayed as a ‘mentally ill’ person in the movie: he’s ‘weak’ because he suffers from the disease of ‘loneliness’.
요즘 세상에 타임머신남은 좀 촌스러워요. 남 신경 쓰지 않고, 혼자서도 아무렇지 않게 무엇이든 잘 하며 살아가는 것이 요즘의 쿨함이잖아요. 외로움을 드러내고, 누군가와 간절히 연결되고 싶어하는 건 나약함의 표현처럼 여겨지죠. 그를 정신이상자의 모습으로 영화에서 그려낸 것도 그 때문이에요. 약해빠진 외로움병 환자랄까요.
However, when we stop to listen carefully to what he says, we realise that what he misses is actually a much more universal emotion than we thought. We’re all lonely, after all. Could it be that we’re all living under the pressure of not being being lonely and we’re all afraid to admit that we are?
하지만 그의 말을 자세히 들어보면, 그가 그리워하는 건 생각보다 보편적인 감정이잖아요. 외롭지 않은 사람이 어디 있나요. 그저 외로워서는 안 되고, 자신이 외로운 존재라는 걸 인정해서는 안 된다는 강박 속에서 살고 있는 건 아닐까요.
We are all ‘time machine people’, to an extent. We’re all lonely, and we’re all getting sick, little by little, because of that loneliness.
그러니까 사실 우리는 다 어느 정도는 타임머신남과 비슷해요. 외롭고, 그 외로움 때문에 조금씩 병들어 있죠.
The Challenges of Making Aloners and Hong Sung-eun’s Future Projects
What was the main challenge you encountered when making the film?
Hong Sung-eun: The thing is, it was the first time I’ve ever experienced any part of the process, because it was my first feature film. I’ve had to keep working with the awareness that I knew nothing about the process, and to be honest with the people I worked with. You know, when you don’t know anything, you may sometimes get the urge to pretend you knew things that you don’t, and I think that fighting these emotions is the main challenge of doing something like this for the first time. Luckily, the actors, the staff and the people who worked on the film all embraced me as I am, and that made it possible for me to work in an easier, more honest way.
무엇이든 처음 겪는 일이라는 사실이요. 제 첫 장편영화거든요. 제가 사실은 아무것도 모르고, 무력하다는 사실을 계속 안고 작업해야 했어요. 그에 대해 같이 일하는 사람들에게 솔직해야 했고요. 가진 게 없을 때에는 뭔가 그럴싸하게 포장하고 미화하고 싶은 충동이 생길 수도 있잖아요. 잘 모르는 걸 아는 척 하고 싶을 때도 있고요. 그런 감정들과 싸우는 건 처음 해보는 일을 할 때 가장 어려운 점인 것 같아요. 다행히 저와 같이 일해준 모든 배우들과 스탭들이 제 그런 모자란 모습을 있는 그대로 받아들여줘서, 제가 더 단순하고 솔직하게 일할 수 있었답니다.
What’s next for you? We’d love to hear about your future projects.
Hong Sung-eun: I’m having various discussions with various people with many things in mind, and I’m ready to discuss anything. For the moment, I think I’ll be working on projects for streaming services, like short films or series, for a little while.
The English translation of this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aloners was screened at the Torino Film Festival on 2-4 December, 2021. The film will be released in the UK and select countries on MUBI on July 11, 2022, and in North American theaters in early 2022. Read our review of Aloners (2022).