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Year: 2011
Country: South Korea
Language: Korean
Director: Kim Kyung-mook
Screenplay: Kim Kyung-mook
Cinematography: Kang Kookhyun
Cast: Paul Lee, Yeom Hyunjoon, Kim Sae-byuk, Lim Hyungkook, Kim Jeongseok, So Heejeong, Son Inyong
Runtime: 135 min
Trailer: 줄탁동시 (subtitled)

Seen at a screening at the ICA as part of the 2011 BFI Film Festival. A warning beforehand: the film is graphic and sexually explicit.

Stateless Things was one of two Korean productions screening during the BFI Film Festival, the other being 북촌 방향 (Book-chon Bang-hyang/The Day He Arrives). Kim Kyung-mook’s third feature film (after 얼굴 없는 것들/Faceless Things, 2005, and 청계천의 개/A Cheonggyecheon Dog, 2008) provides a heavy fare: it gives us a glimpse into the lives of three youngsters – Jun (Paul Lee), an illegal North Korean immigrant, Soonhee (Kim Sae-byuk), a Korean-Chinese girl, and Hyeon (Yeom Hjunjoon), a gay male prostitute – who all fight to survive somewhere at the very bottom of Korean society. The focus is on the two boys, whose stories are initially told separately but merge in the last twenty minutes or so of Stateless Things when Jun’s menial work opportunities – at a gas station, leafleting on streets – have dried up and he too has slipped into male prostitution.

Both boys lead terrible lives on the fringe, but are merely trying to survive. In an almost contradictory manner, there is an integrity and sanity to their characters and in the midst of their most desperate moments (including Hyeon’s, who has lost all shame and is willing to do just about anything in order to make money) there is more self and soul to them than to the people who use and abuse them. These are the truly twisted, abnormal members of society: the two-faced gas station owner and, even more so, the middle-aged married man who does not only keep a lover in a spare luxury apartment but is in an obsessive relationship with a boy probably barely the legal age of consent.

Generally idiosyncratic in its cinematography – seemingly unedited, handheld camera footage is as much part of Stateless Things as carefully orchestrated shots – dialogue becomes sparse over the course of the film. Kim often relies on wordless scenes, some of which are outstanding. Jun’s suffering is painful to watch during his first experience of prostituting himself and emphasised further when he silently runs – on and on and on – through grey and people-less streets.

There is also a flashback that is immediately recognisable thanks to Yeom Hjunjoo’s fine acting abilities. He physically inhabits the space of the apartment in a manner that makes it clear that this is when he was entering it for the first time. The same scene is loaded with sexual tension, no words uttered. And last, there is that desperate, final love-making scene. Again, Kim uses no dialogue and removes even the visual explicitness of the earlier sex scenes (it is difficult to tell who initiates the sexual act) as the screen image becomes darker and darker. What exactly is happening? We can’t be too sure, but it is nonetheless the one of the most haunting scenes of the film where the characters’ internal worlds implode.

Stateless Things lacks explanations in many parts, leaving it to the viewer to piece story snippets together and make sense of them, including its ending. But then this is a film about broken lives with things that have no explanations. Jun, Soonhee, and Hyeon are stateless, nameless, identity-less, except perhaps to each other in the brief moments in which they are lucky enough to meet. Kim Kyung-mook has portrayed some of these moments in a film of raw intensity and impressive depth – intensity and depth that are even more impressive given that its director was born only in 1985.

Rating: Stateless Things is not the kind of film that can be rated easily and I would rather not pin a number on it. I will say this much: if you can handle the subject matter (including sexually explicit footage), it absolutely worth watching.

Bonus Bits:

  • Review from Hanguk Yeonghwa, with a transcription of a very interesting Q&A (from a special screening at KOFIC).