A special screening of Stateless Things (줄탁동시), followed by a Q&A with director Kim Kyung-mook (김경묵), took place at Indieplus in Gangnam on the 15th of January. Stateless Things is quite a rarity within Korean cinematic culture as experimental queer art-house films are few and far between. The version shown was the two hour ‘uncut’ edition, featuring the sexual scenes that had to be edited in order for general release.
The film explores the concept of alienation within Korean – or, more specifically, Seoul – culture from the perspective of an illegal immigrant and a young gay man. While the immigrant, known as Joon, experiences alienation through exclusion, homosexual Hyun struggles against confinement. Director Kim Kyung-mook explores his protagonists employing various cinematic techniques, primarily non-linear editing and alternating cameras, for a highly unique production that prompted several questions from the audience.
Before the Q&A began, translator and independent film producer Hwang Hye-rim (황혜림) began with an introduction.
Producer Hwang Hye-rim: As it is quite a ‘different’ kind of film, even considering it is an independent film. It is unique, bold, shocking and too ‘obscene’ for some people. At first it was rated ‘R’, a restricted rating, which is like a XXX film in America. It means when you get this ‘R’ rating in Korea you can only screen the film in a certified cinema which is approved for screening ‘R’ rated movies. Which doesn’t exist in Korea at all. There is no cinema which is certified to show those kinds of films. It means if you get an ‘R’ rating, you can’t get it on the screen. So you have two choices. You can either delete or modify certain scenes and get an NC17 so it can be shown in cinemas, or you can have screenings only for specific kinds of events like festivals. That’s the fight that it had to go through to be in the cinema last March. It got NC17 after certain modifications. Not just because of the ratings, but you can also see it’s a very rare kind of film. So we can start with how he made the film, and how it started.
Director Kim Kyung-mook: My first film was called Faceless Things (얼굴 없는 것들) in 2005. This story (Stateless Things) evolved from one of the characters of my debut, which is a story of a young gay boy. From Faceless Things and from that boy character I tried to tell a story about this boy, what would happen to him when he goes out into the outside world, what kind of things would happen to him? That’s how I started to make the story. I wanted to make a coming-of-age story of this young gay boy, that’s how Stateless Things started. The English title is Stateless Things which is named in relation to Faceless Things, but the Korean title is quite different. The Korean title can be interpreted like a hen pecking inside and outside. I don’t know if you’ve read ‘Demian‘ by Hermann Hesse. It’s a story like a bird fighting its way out of an egg by pecking. ‘줄탁’ means pecking from inside and outside and ‘동시’ means at the same time. So it’s an idea of zen. Which means like if a chick is trying to come out from an egg it’s pecking from the inside, and the mother hen hears the sound of the pecking and pecks from the outside. So it’s normally used as an expression to show the relationship between a parent and child, or a teacher/mentor and student. That’s the process of giving birth to life, or realizing a truth. The Korean title has that meaning. But in this case it’s obviously the relationship between the two boys, one boy from inside, one boy from outside. So it’s like they are pecking the shell of an egg to come out to the outside world in a sense. As I mentioned about ‘Demian‘, in the film the expression was used to show the divided identity of this boy – these boys can be one boy or two boys – but he has two different kind of egos inside him. That’s why I used this title, to show that kind of idea.
Question: There’s a very strong feeling of alienation in the movie. And it seemed like a conflation between personal and social or national. Can you tell us anything about the influences that brought those two senses of alienation together?
Director Kim: Like most other directors this story also comes from my personal experience. So that was one of my influences. And it’s kind of related to my experience from when I came from Busan to Seoul. I moved to Seoul when I was about that age. And that’s why there’s a feeling of alienation, one of the main atmospheres you felt when watching this movie. I’ve heard a lot that the depiction of Seoul, or the scenes that have the landscape of Seoul, looks very different and strange. I’ve heard that a lot from Korean audiences. It’s probably because I felt like that when I first came to Seoul, like an alien or total stranger. So that’s how I looked at Seoul when I first came. Of course it has changed now as I have been living here for more than 10 years. So it’s not exactly the same, I don’t feel the same way I did before. But still it has a certain kind of strange look, Seoul has that kind of face when I look at it and that’s why it’s in the film. The feeling of space and moving, that’s how alienation becomes one of the main feelings in the film. That’s exactly the feeling I felt the most at that age when I came to Seoul. The alienation is about social alienation but it’s also the kind of feeling about being alienated from yourself, because you feel the chaos at that age. And you are often confused about who you really are, thinking about your identity and who you are and searching for yourself. So it was that kind of time for me. And that’s why they are feeling lonely as well, it’s not because they have no girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s because they have no answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ They are still searching for it. That was my experience around that age, and that’s how the story evolved from that experience.
Question: In the end credits, there were actors that played two characters. Was it because of lack of money or budget, or was it intentional?
Director Kim: Well it’s kind of intentional, it wasn’t because of lack of money. I wanted to give you the feeling of when you are seeing the same faces but in a different kind of feeling or story. So the first part of the film, and the second part, you see these people but they are not main characters. But you see the same faces in very different situations. For example you saw the women from the labour office, she was spanked in part 2 by the gay boy so it’s completely different kind of character played by one actor. That was my intention, to give this different kind of feeling from the same faces. There is other male character as well who played two roles, but it was cut out during the editing process. The film was already quite long enough so I had to remove it in editing.
Question: You showed a lot of different perspectives of having a gay lifestyle in Korea. A man with a double life who has a wife and a boyfriend, a young gay man who is trapped, another who is forced into homosexuality through poverty. But Korean movies are quite popular, the ones that have gay themes, like The King and The Clown and Bungee Jumping of Their Own. Why are movies with gay themes very popular, but it doesn’t translate into society? Why do you think that is?
Director Kim: I think one of the biggest reasons is the generation gap. I think the younger generation are much more open to gay culture and gay themes, or having gay friends. And the films you have mentioned are quite young at heart, in a sense, and there are a lot of dramas and soap operas and comic books which deals with gay issues very openly. A lot of young people are ready to embrace it, they don’t have any problems with that. But I think the older generation, maybe over 40s or 50s, they have lived a totally different life in a different era. So for them it’s still quite difficult to recognize this kind of culture or embrace it. That’s probably why. But they are the ones who still have the power, social status, and authority, to change things legally or politically. That’s why you cannot see as much difference in terms of law or social changes. But I think we have seen very big changes in recent years with young people and culture.
Question: I have two questions. The first is, how did you do the casting of the actors? How much was scripted, and how much did the actors do themselves? What was their feedback and input into the characters? And the second question is, I’m sure it’s probably often asked but why is the title so far into the film?
Director Kim: To answer the first question, except for some adult actors, most of the actors who played the main roles were first time actors. I found them through an audition. For most of them it was their first feature film experience. I was trying to find appropriate actors for the characters. Most of the scenes, especially the scenes with exposure, were written in the script already. So most of the actors who came to the audition said no to those scenes, it was too much for most of the actors who auditioned. So I had to find actors amongst those who wouldn’t say no to the script. I also tried to talk a lot with the actors, that’s how I work usually. I also tried to research a lot about North Korean defectors and gay people. I visited the gay clubs in Itaewon a lot. I also talked a lot to Korean-Chinese people with my actors. That’s how it happened. And the second question, about why the title came so late, I thought putting the title at the beginning of the film doesn’t really fit with this film. That’s what I thought. I didn’t want to start the film with a title. The question was then, where should I put it? I thought the scene when the two boys are meeting each other is kind of a beginning of the story for me, so I chose to put the title in front of that scene. But right before that scene, you remember the long sequence where Joon is walking down the street, it feels like an ending scene so I wanted to put a little bit of atmosphere of an opening scene as well. It looks like an ending, but it’s also a beginning at the same time. That’s the feeling I wanted to create. It’s like the end is the beginning is the end, in a sense. I thought that’s a better fit considering the whole rhythm of the film.
Question: When you started telling the story of the boy in the apartment, why did you decide to play with time? What was the symbolic reason for that?
Director Kim: Actually I tried to play with time throughout the film at first, but I thought maybe it would be easier if I reduced that a little to make it easier to understand the whole story, if I made it more chronological. So I reduced, or focused it more, on the apartment scenes. But as you can see in the opening scene when they are on the bike and running by the street, I also played with time a little bit there as well. The reason is that I was trying to show the story as if it is remembering something. It’s like telling a s tory about your past. The story is like the past of these two boys. And if you remember they are burning a diary at the end of the film, and I was trying to give this feeling, of getting rid of your past, and it’s time to move on to another future, in a sense. So that’s why the story is going backwards. Whenever you feel hard or difficult times in your life you go back to past memories. That’s why the movie has the structure of playing with time. It’s like telling a story by looking at the past and their memories. The structure, or frame, of memory was the main structure I was thinking of when I was making this film.
Question: I have noticed, in the past year especially, quite a lot of Korean films have dealt with issues that are usually very taboo to talk about in society. What I have noticed, which is quite exceptional, is that they have been dealt with full-on without any hidden facets, and very truthfully and realistically but at the same time very sensitively. What special attributes do Korean directors have that enables them to make films that are so frank and honest and extremely good? It’s very much appreciated.
Director Kim: Thank you! I’m not sure if I have the right answer but I’m going to try it anyway. I think maybe it’s because we had a history that changed very very quickly. Our society has gone through fast changes in the last few decades. So in the process a lot of things were suppressed and there was a lot of pressure in every aspect of society. Culturally, socially, politically. We went through this in a very short time compared to other societies in other continents. That’s probably why we end up having this power or strength against it, from that experience. I also feel the same way when I see some of the films from South-East Asian countries, and China. And I would like to say the same comment that you said about Korean films. In those countries, they are going through a change as well from a not very democratic society to a hopefully better society, so I think that kind of status of being more suppressed means you have more will and more energy to express. Resistance. You’re more willing to resist.
Question: It’s slightly related to structure. There were two scenes before Hyun and Joon meet that quite surprised me because they were unexpected scenes from each others lives. And they were both scenes of prostitution. The way that I picture it in my head is like kind of a yin and yang. It’s one persons story, but then there’s this punctuation of sex as a commodity in each of them. I think as far as I remember, those are the only two scenes in each others stories that appear. I was wondering about those scenes.
Director Kim: To me, as you said it can be like Yin and Yang, or like two different egos in one character. But for me these two boys were connected as one. Its like they’re behaving the same way, but have two different faces, for example. They are having paid sex, doing the same thing, but have different faces. For me those two scenes were related in that way. I wanted to create a feeling that they might be one person and not two. Also the scenes with the diary, some parts were shown in different parts of the movie. That was to give the feeling that they are from one diary, and that these boys are the same person. So the diary and the sex scene were devices for me to show that they are one. I also used several bridge sequences, like the video camera and hidden camera images, to show their mindscape being connected. It’s not consistent, but that’s how I wanted to show their minds were connected.
(Director Kim then spoke in English to address the audience) It’s a really rare chance to have a Q&A in English here. I haven’t actually had a chance to talk in English in a theater in Korea, so it was kind of surprising. I actually didn’t know that before coming here. I feel like I should of asked where you guys came from, but I missed it. Maybe after the Q&A I can maybe ask you, if you guys come to me.
Question: Are you making any new projects these days?
Director Kim: I’ve been working on a documentary for 2 years but I think I’m screwed! I’m not sure if I can go on. I’m just kidding. I’m still editing and I think I’ll be finishing the editing process by the end of this year. It’s about prostitution, women prostitutes. This time it’s about women, not men.
Sincere thanks to Director Kim yung-mook for graciously answering questions, and to Producer Hwang Hye-rim and Manager Kwon Mi-hui for translating and hosting the event.