The opening title card for Stateless Things appears 94 minutes into its running time, announcing the start of its final act. By this point the film has radically shifted in form and tone from the point at which it started; the haunting shot of a motorcycle drifting across the highway. Kyung-Mook, who made a name for himself with 2009’s Faceless Things, observes his characters in blotchy close-ups and startling tracking shots, fluidly working between two intercutting stories of fraught male identity. Jun (Paul Lee) has recently fled from North Korea and got a job as a gas station attendant, working under an abusive boss who sexually harasses his co-worker, Soonhee (Saebyuk Kim), also an illegal immigrant. Elsewhere in Seoul, Hyeon (Hyunjoon Yeom) is caged away in a sterile apartment belonging to Seonghoon (Im Hyung-kook), a married businessman who keeps the boy for illicit pleasures. Eventually, through acts of sexual degradation and tempered violence, the two protagonists will come together in a tragic expression of… well, it’s hard to lend one feeling to the scene. I’ll say this: it carries all the loaded intensity of Nagisa Ôshima’s In The Realm Of The Senses (1976).
Unfortunately I haven’t been able to see Kyung-Mook’s debut feature, and I sincerely doubt this one will get a release beyond festivals; there were no press notes attached to my screening, and the film – at the time of writing – doesn’t even have an IMDB page. The director has attained quite a reputation on the world stage, however, with Tony Rayns noting him as “one of the brightest talents in Korean indie filmmaking“, and it appears big things are expected of this follow-up. Well, Stateless Things, while not entirely accomplished, is one of the best films playing at London this year, and certainly one of the most audacious…
What’s really striking about the film on an initial viewing is Kyung-Mook’s structuring of story. Traditionally a cross-cutting narrative would place equal emphasis on both characters, moving back and forth between them to create tension in their individual stories. It’s good for pacing too, as the audience isn’t stuck in one location for any extended period of time. But the first 45 minutes of Stateless Things focus exclusively on Jun, save for an oddly placed cutaway of a Hyeon home video, where he ties up and spanks a sadomasochistic (I’m presuming) prostitute. Not only does Kyung-Mook wait this long to introduce his secondary protagonist, he also chooses to introduce him off-camera, and directly in the middle of an unrelated sequence. The director seems to care very little for established technique, instead forming a unique cinematic language around the specific qualities of his own screenplay (which could do with some tightening).
A fine example of this innovation is the montage of Jun and Soonhee’s dates (I call them dates, but romance is only hinted toward, and in very subtle strokes). Using a digital map of Seoul they select and then pinpoint (using a 360° touch-pad) the exact location they want to visit. Kyung-Mook’s camera then zooms in and offers a quick-cut snapshot of their day. It’s breathlessly inventive, and also a great display of how Stateless Things handles tone. Just fifteen minutes after this montage there’s a fantastic chase sequence, which ends on an act of quite brutal violence (not so much because it’s bloody, but because of the emotions behind the punches). These scenes should feel disjointed, like they belong in different films, but DP Kang Kook-hyun creates an eternally melancholic atmosphere for the landscape, shooting the city like a scene from somebody’s most deeply felt nightmares.
Kyung-Mook’s camera has incredible freedom in the city, often feeling disconnected from the world it inhabits; like an outside observer. One fantastic tracking shot around the 90-minute mark presents the landscape as teetering on the brink of dystopia, but in an entirely suggestive way. Again, it’s hard to explain, but the feeling is similar to Heartbeat Detector (Nicolas Klotz, 2007). Seonghoon’s spacious penthouse is presented in a more austere fashion, paying attention to the articulate interiors (wood and marble). This smart juxtaposition is also part of the film’s appeal, as are the strong performances and lo-fi score, which rumbles underneath the action at its most dramatic junctions. Kyung-Mook’s confidence doesn’t always serve him well, but on the whole Stateless Things is a fascinating cocktail of ideas and styles, and I can’t wait to see it again. Problem is, I probably never will…
Director: Kim Kyung-Mook
Writer: Kim Kyung-Mook
Stars: Paul Lee, Saebyuk Kim, Im Hyung-kook, Hyunjoon Yeom
Runtime: 115 minutes
Country: South Korea