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Korean cinema’s recent fixation on North Koreans making the transition to life in the South (Dance Town, The Journals of Musan) is partnered with its ongoing “edgy” exploration of gay and lesbian life (No Regret) in Stateless Things, a film that treats its subjects far less glibly than many films like it. Set in a bleak, unwelcoming Seoul, the film has currency on its side and should be a good fit on most international festivals. Limited art house distribution isn’t out of the question in Asian markets.
Writer-director Kim Kyung-mook’s past work in documentary shows through here in Stateless’ observational tone that carries just a hint of commentary. There are long stretches where simple actions play out uninterrupted—and which occasionally bring the forward momentum to a halt—that infuses the story with a sense of simmering anxiety. The largely unknown cast’s naturalistic performances help that along, and underpin the characters’ untethered lives, be it by design or not.
Illegal North Korean national Joon (Paul Lee) works menial, no-questions-asked jobs around Seoul, the most recent being at a gas station with fellow illegal, Korean-Chinese Soonhee (Kim Sae-byuk). With no rights, no recourse and even less than basic tolerance from the average South Korean, the pair exist in the shadows, never wanting to cause a fuss. When the duo’s grabby boss harasses Soonhee and then refuses to pay Joon’s wages, a burst of violence sends them on the run. They don’t go far, but they do spend a few days fantasizing about being welcome citizens of Seoul. Meanwhile, young hustler Hyun (Yeom Hyun-joon) lives in a swish high-rise apartment kept by his married lover Sunghoon (Lim Hyung-kook). Their relationship is at a fragile state, with Sunghoon largely living a heteronormic life and Hyun carrying on his party boy antics when he’s alone. Bored and dissatisfied, Hyun is everything Joon is not. He has power, though he is losing interest in what that power achieves.
Stateless Things could stand some judicious editing, and there are times when multi-tasker Kim’s emerging aesthetic reveals its infancy. Gratuitous flourishes that could be eliminated to give the film tighter construction—the pan around to a karaoke screen, Joon’s anguished daybreak city walk—take the viewer out of the moment. But the handheld camera work isn’t obtrusive for a change, and though the sound quality wavers from time to time, the images are richly composed in a day (for Joon) and night (for Hyun) dichotomy. That Kim keeps his protagonists in separate realms for most of the film—the last act and final convergence of the two stories comes with the title card 90 minutes in—is an audacious formal choice that nonetheless gives viewers time to really get into the characters’ heads.
The sharp observations of Seoul’s most marginalized groups, North Korean refugees (and immigrants in general) and its LGBT community are pointed and gracefully illustrate their plights: Joon has a delicately heartbreaking penchant for picking up dropped coins and the occasional bank note while detailing cars, Hyun’s solitary dance at home, looming over the city, is a constant reminder of his distance from it. But Kim drops the ball with his abrupt abandonment of Soonhee and the slight romance that seems to be forming between her and Joon. Though the end game was getting the two men together all along she feels like a diversion, an unnecessary plot point that gives Joon’s desperation—which takes him to Hyun—purpose. But Stateless gets back on track in the dreamy final sequence that may just provide the home the men have been looking for.
Producer: Park Jin-weon
Director: Kim Kyung-mook
Cast: Paul Lee, Yeom Hyun-joon, Kim Sae-byuk, Lim Hyung-kook, Kim Jeong-seok, So Hee-jeong
Screenwriter: Kim Kyung-mook
Director of Photography: Kang Kook-hyun
Production Designer: Park Jae-hyun
Music: Lee Min-hee
Costume Designer: Choo Jeong-hee
Editor: Shin Ye-jin, Kim Kyung-mook
No rating, 118minutes
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