Alone, together

Dispatches from the 46th Toronto International Film Festival

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'Power of the Dog'
© 2021 Netflix, Inc.

The Koreans call it holojok—a portmanteau of holo (alone) and jok (together)—a growing phenomenon of young adults choosing to live alone in single-family homes. By some estimates, one-third of the total homes in Seoul are occupied by holojok.

Aloners, the debut feature from writer/director Hong Seong-eun, follows the lives of a half-dozen or so holojok. From Jina (Gong Seung-yeon), who lives in an impersonal high rise and works at a credit card call center, to a next-door neighbor who dies one night and nobody seems to notice. There’s also Jina’s father (Park Jeong-hak), newly widowed, and Sujin (Jung Da-eun), a recent graduate who’s moved to the big city to start her life.

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right ‘Aloners’ (Courtesy TIFF)

Hong made Aloners in 2019, back when holojok was still something of a curiosity. Today, scores of souls living in isolation and accessing the world through screens rather than human contact no longer seems curious. It’s a wonder that Hong can present characters this isolated and a story this bleak and not make Aloners feel crushing. It’s not an uplifting movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it doesn’t leave you feeling despondent either.

And when it played the Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend, Aloners felt perfect for the moment. Screening in-person and virtually through Sept. 18, TIFF presents over 150 features and shorts with conversations, events, and award ceremonies.

Many of the movies at TIFF are premieres, promises of things to come. But, like Aloners, many movies, small and international, were lost in the COVID shuffle of festival cancellations and shifting release dates. Violet, the debut from Justine Bateman, was supposed to premiere at the 2020 South By Southwest Film Festival, but you can probably guess what happened there.

Like Aloners, the delay has only given Violet resonance. The drama centers on Violet Calder (Olivia Munn), an early-30s production company executive struggling with anxiety and fear-based decision making. Everywhere she goes, everything she does, everyone she meets, is undermined by The Voice (Justin Theroux)—an antagonistic force reverberating in her head. The Voice convinces Violet she’s worthless and weak and might as well sabotage whatever good she has. 

1996-98 AccuSoft Inc., All right ‘Violet’ (Courtesy TIFF)

But The Voice is not the only perspective Violet contends with. There is another, The Script: Silent, fluid text-on-screen expressions of Violet’s wants, fears, and desires. The two play counterpoint to Violet’s verbal and physical communication. It’s a poignant synthesis of performance and filmmaking and completely unnerving to boot.

So is The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s return to feature filmmaking after a decade-long hiatus. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s western novel of the same name, Power follows two brothers running a Montana cattle ranch: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons). Their approaches to life couldn’t be more different, and George lobbies a grenade in the middle when he goes and surreptitiously marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who brings her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to live on the ranch.

Like many of Campion’s films, Power of the Dog revolves around a central mystery of isolated characters too proud to connect the way they want to. And Campion loads her movie with so much sexual tension and seething emotions that you don’t even know you’re watching a mystery until the reveal at the end. It’s the work of a true master. Netflix has Power of the Dog scheduled for release later this fall, but with its stunning landscape photography and powerful performances, hopefully one of the area theaters gives it a proper presentation.

For more coverage from the Toronto International Film Festival, tune to Metro Arts on KGNU, Fridays at 3 p.m., and visit michaeljcinema.com.

ON THE BILL: The Toronto International Film Festival continues through Sept. 18, with limited tickets available at tiff.net.