Directed by: Jae-shik Park
‘Loner’ is a South Korean film that interestingly satirises the Japanese phenomenon of social withdrawal known as Hikikomori, like anything Japanese it is rather extreme, as sufferers retreat from society not just for a week or two, but sometimes for years.
Like in most South Korean films there are borderline incestuous relationships that veer on the Shakespearean, self-mutilation aplenty and melodramatic monologues that drag on seemingly forever. You can probably categorize ‘Loner’ as a psychological horror, as it is a tense slow burner, with a convenient, almost typical South Korean cinema ending which ties up all the loose ends and explains all those confusing bits that were initially hard to follow.
The film starts off in a typical high school canteen; a bespectacled girl picks up a meal and sits down on her own. She begins to tuck in to her food but is interrupted by a gang of mean girls. These bitches taunt the girl in glasses, who we learn is called Ha-Jung, and push Ha-Jung’s face down into the dinner tray leaving her with a face full of curry sauce. Ha-Jung’s best friend Soon-na steps in, but we quickly Soon-na has got her own problems and is not able to protect her BFF from the mean girls. Soon-na appears to be in love with her handsome Uncle. This becomes more disturbing later in the film, when he reveals he isn’t the man who he says he is.
Ha-Jung can’t escape her bullies and is forced to shoplift from a lingerie store in order to nick expensive panties for the mean girls. Ha-Jung is chased down when she sets off the security alarm when fleeing the store and is humiliated in public by a very angry shop assistant who slaps her silly. Ha-Jung then retreats to her room, and becomes a Hikikomori case. This concerns her deaf Mother, who reaches out to Soon-na. Nobody seems to be able to get Ha-Jung to come out of her room. One of the teachers even sends the lead bully over to apologize to Ha-Jung and try and convince her to return to school. The bully enters Ha-Jung’s room and discovers something truly horrific.
Hikikomori spreads, and after Ha-Jung commits suicide (oops, spoiler alert), Soo-na too becomes reclusive, seemingly possessed by an evil force. The director tries to make some kind of commentary on the phenomenon, implying that Hikikomori isn’t unexplained, but in most cases there is a connection between trauma, unresolved family issues and the need to retreat.
The scares seem very familiar, with young catatonic Korean women who all seem to resemble the girl from ‘The Ring’ with long black hair covering their faces lurking around their darkened rooms. They cut themselves, spraying an unrealistic amount of blood over their startled visitors.
‘Loner’ begins with an interesting premise, but descends slowly into Soo-Na’s muddled family drama. There’s her matriarch Grandmother trying to run a tight ship, the clean cut Uncle who is almost too good to be true, and a big family secret that comes back from the past to haunt them all. If anything it turns out to be rather like an ‘Eastenders’ Christmas Special, with the shocks predictable and ultimately rather unsatisfying.