Kim Kyung-mook's astonishing, cleverly constructed, formally and thematically audacious Stateless Things is a major highlight of this year's edition of "Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today," screening at the Museum of Modern Art through September 30. This is a penetrating, provocative look at the marginalized and disenfranchised of Seoul, focusing in particular on two sets of groups outside the mainstream of society: illegal immigrants (especially North Korean refugees) and gays. Kim posits the idea that both these groups suffer equally as "stateless things," restless, homeless souls treated by others with power over them as objects and playthings, rather than human beings deserving of dignity.
Stateless Things is divided into three sections, each with very distinct visual schemes. Kim's background as a documentarian is evident in the verité-like style of much of the film's opening section, which follows Joon (Paul Lee), a North Korean defector, and Soon-hee (Kim Sae-byok), who works at a gas station under a tyrannical, exploitative boss (Kim Jeong-seok). When the boss's unwanted sexual advances toward Soon-hee and his refusal to pay Joon's wages lead them both to violently retaliate against their oppressor, they flee and wander the city. This leads to a passage consisting of a witty travelogue montage during which Joon and Soon-hee tour various iconic Seoul tourist attractions, punctuated by a digital map that visually announces each destination. While the two enjoy each other's company, and there is the potential of a budding romance between them, their peripatetic existence and lack of a place to truly call home makes such a relationship ultimately impossible.
The second section concerns Hyun (Yeom Hyun-jun), a young gay man and sometime hustler who is currently a kept man to Sung-hoon (Lim Hyung-kook) in a posh high-rise apartment. Sung-hoon expects Hyun to be at his beck and call, and gets upset when Hyun, feeling like a prisoner within his lush surroundings, escapes to while away the nights in karaoke bars. In contrast to the completely powerless Joon, Hyun's attractiveness gives him some measure of power over his lovers, but he remains dependent on them for a home and basic survival. In visual counterpoint to the first section's restless camerawork, this section has a more stationary camera and takes place in enclosed spaces, reflecting Hyun's luxurious yet lonely isolation.
The third section is announced by a lengthy tracking shot following Joon briskly and agitatedly walking the streets, along with a title card that appears 95 minutes in (shades of Apichatpong Weerasethakul). This last part of the film brings Joon and Hyun together, and has a much more surreal tone than the relatively realist quality of what has come before. The concluding scenes consists of a David Lynch-like reordering of characters and narrative details that powerfully bring home the connection between the two as existing in the precarious fringes of society, dependent for their survival on a world that is hostile toward them. Kim Kyung-mook makes full use of the techniques he has developed in documentary and experimental cinema to deliver a unique vision of a city that is often harsh and forbidding, but not without a sense of hope or possibilities for escape, however fleeting.
Stateless Things screens September 28, 8pm at the Museum of Modern Art. For more information on this film and others in the series, visit MoMA's website.