“We looked everywhere for a place for us to stay, but we could not find it anywhere” one of the twin heroes of Kim Kyung-mook’s indie drama Stateless Things (줄탁동시, Jooltak Dongshi) confesses. As the title suggests, Kim’s eventually surrealist drama follows those who no longer have a home and are instead condemned to wander the margins of an unforgiving city. Finding only loneliness and exploitation they long for an escape and perhaps find one if only in a moment of eclipse.
Shooting in a more naturalistic, documentary style, Kim first focusses on the figure of Jun (Paul Lee), a young North Korean refugee who lost his mother in the crossing and his father to another woman in Busan. He works in a petrol station but is treated with disdain by his boss who has his eye on his female colleague, Soon-hee (Kim Sae-Byuk), who is a member of the Korean minority in China where most of her family reside. Though originally hostile towards each other, each wary of their mutual isolation and concurrent vulnerability, the pair later bond in a shared resentment of their boss who exploits Jun physically for his labour and seeks to exploit Soon-hee sexually. After each saving the other from the nefarious boss, the pair have no choice but to go on the run taking in a series of tourist spots while looking for another place to settle.
Meanwhile, across town, a young gay man, Hyun (Yeom Hyun-Joon), is a virtual prisoner in the home of his wealthy, married and closeted lover. He looks out across the midnight city and dances sadly alone in a luxury apartment in the sky while occasionally venturing out to meet other men, mostly older, who similarly only intend to exploit his body. “You have nowhere to go.” the exasperated Sung-woo/Sung-hoon (Lim Hyung-Guk) insists, thrown into jealous anxiety on visiting the flat and finding Hyun absent, yet he cannot really offer him a “home” and is all too aware of the transactional nature of their relationship. Though Hyun is also in a sense “stateless”, he has a power over Sung-woo and is able to wield his youth and beauty like a weapon if one he may not fully be able to control. In any case, he too is excluded from the mainstream society by virtue of his sexuality and socio-economic background.
When Soon-hee and Jun visit a temple, he remarks on the incongruity of seeing a painting that features both a sun and a moon. She explains a folktale to him in which sun and moon are embodiments of siblings who climbed a rope into the sky to escape a hungry tiger. In his diary, Hyun also envisages a pair of twins one opening a door with his right hand as the other closes it with his left. In the surrealist sequence which closes the film, after a title card that appears 90 minutes in, the two men blur into one another as if they shared the same soul in an almost literal eclipse of the self. Kim nevertheless characterises them as sun and moon who cannot ordinarily share the same space. Jun occupies a world of street level sunniness until the light finally begins to dim leaving him alone in a dusky, rain-soaked city. Hyun meanwhile lives by night in his high rise apartment, a prisoner of luxury who flirts with danger for a sense of escape.
Then again we might ask if Jun and Hyun are two sides of one whole, a sun and moon protecting the king who finds himself an exile. Kim shifts to scenes of emptiness, rooms without presence and streets without life as if the two men were ghosts of themselves hovering above a rootless Seoul, the sense of eeriness only deepened by Kim’s lengthy takes as he follows Jun walking a lonely path towards nowhere in particular because in the end he too has nowhere to go. Departing from the realism with which the film opened, the final sequence gives way to a kind of rebirth if only one of wandering that leaves its heroes at the mercy of a society continually unwilling to recognise their personhood.
Stateless Things screened as part of this year’s Queer East .
Trailer (English subtitles)