As an experimental queer art-house film, Stateless Things (줄탁동시) is a quite a rarity in Korean cinema. Director Kim Kyung-mook (김경묵) has crafted an incredibly unique production that explores the subjects of alienation and homosexuality within the metropolis of Seoul, employing a variety of cinematic techniques in emphasizing ostracization and identities in flux. Through the dual narratives that transpire, the protagonists are forcefully excluded from and contained within the confines of Seoul, allowing for an examination of the city not as a romanticized hub of commerce but as an overbearing arena where identity is subsumed. While the English title Stateless Things points to such themes, the Korean title offers more potent symbolism. ‘줄탁’ means pecking from inside and outside while ‘동시’ means at the same time, alluding to the relationship that exists between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds, between senior and junior, and the realization of truth. While director Kim exhibits his fascinating trademark stylization throughout his frank exploration, he is also let down by his eccentricities that makes the story somewhat incoherent and certainly overly long.
Working in a gas station and handing out pamphlets in his spare time, North Korean immigrant Joon (준) lives on the edge of poverty. His manager continually attempts to take advantage of him and co-worker Soon-hee (순희), who is continually sexually harassed by the owner. Having taken enough abuse, Joon and Soon-hee run away together to discover Seoul and a new life. Simultaneously, on the other side of Seoul, a young gay man known as Hyun (현) is facing a different set of problems. Confined to a luxury apartment, the former gay prostitute is comfortable yet lonely and isolated, and at the beck and call of his older businessman boyfriend. As events transpire against them, Joon and Hyun must make a decision that will change them forever.
Stateless Things is very much a film of two halves, which director Kim uses to contrast themes of alienation exceptionally well. For the first half of the film the narrative focuses on Joon and his poverty-stricken life. As an immigrant in Seoul, Joon is located on the fringes of society and is barely negligible as he pumps gas for customers and distributes unwanted leaflets. His existence is continually represented in terms of exclusion, shunned from the world he is trying to be a part of. The second half of the film explores the life of gay prostitute Hyun, who is confined within the luxurious capitalist trappings of an apartment in a rich neighborhood. Hyun is repeatedly framed as a caged being, watching the world outside from his window and unable to join the masses below. In each case, the framing, tones and landscapes are employed brilliantly to convey the senses of alienation and lack of identity that perplex the central characters. Seoul, and the culture within, are always just out of reach for Joon and Hyun; they can observe, but are not embraced by it and as such their statuses as the ‘other’ are the source of the poignant drama.
Homosexuality is also represented in such a manner. Director Kim deserves credit for interrogating the secretive gay culture that exists in contemporary Seoul, as multiple perspectives of homosexuality are represented from affluent middle-aged men through to young gigolos. Throughout Stateless Things sex is a commodity, often victimizing those outside of mainstream culture and serving to further ostracize them. For many of these scenes a handheld camera is used, adding a documentary-esque realism – and terrible danger – to the proceedings that emphasizes their ‘forgotten’ status within society. Similarly the editing techniques employed enhance the atmosphere of loneliness as Joon is continually passing through his story, while Hyun travels back through time to realize how he came to be in such a predicament.
While most of director Kim’s technical flourishes serve the story well, there are moments when his experimental style detracts from the film. Chief among these is the character of Soon-hee. Throughout Joon’s story, director Kim works hard to convey Joon and Soon-hee’s delicate bond as outsiders in Seoul, hinting towards the possibility of a deepening relationship and helping each other overcome adversity. Yet Soon-hee is rather unceremoniously dropped from the film altogether, with only a few subtitles indicating what transpired between her and Joon. This, in turn, points to the larger issue that Stateless Things feels somewhat unfinished. This is ironic considering the roughly two hour running time, yet in addition to unresolved narrative bridges, certain scenes require serious editing. Notably, Joon walking down a street last for several minutes as does his and Soon-hee’s visits to tourist destinations, while Hyun’s appointment in a karoke bar lasts incredibly long.
Yet despite these issues, director Kim enhances the story greatly in other areas with such creative touches. This is acutely the case in the finale when Joon and Hyun finally meet and commit to each other, whilst the sexual sequence between Hyun and his older boyfriend is beautifully shot in long take, conveying tender realism as the two begin to fall in love.
Stateless Things is a real rarity in Korean cinema. Bold and unflinching in the examination of homosexuality and alienation within contemporary Seoul, director Kim Kyung-mook has produced a heartfelt film full of his trademark technical flourishes. While they don’t always work and the film is overly long, Stateless Things is an intriguing experimental film that explores ostracization and gay culture in a manner which others can only dream of, making the drama a pivotal entry in the Korean queer cinema canon.