Helmer Kim Kyung-mook’s “Stateless Things” more than confirms the promise he showed in his earlier, medium-length “Faceless Things.” Though his script needs tightening, the young multihyphenate proves he’s ready to tackle large themes in poetic and unusual ways, and if the juggling between stories — marginalized workers struggling in Seoul, and a young hustler with his sugar-daddy — doesn’t find the right balance, the skill with which he shapes the narratives before they merge together is never less than engrossing. “Stateless” will have its passport stamped around the globe, and could find asylum at specialized arthouses, some with Stateside addresses.
Whether it gets ghettoized into a queer slot will depend on crix response and a savvy sales agent, but there’s no reason why the pic shouldn’t be able to span the gap between fests and gay showcases. However, criticism that the female protag gets dropped too quickly is likely to dog “Stateless Things” no matter the venue.
Joon (Lee Paul) is a gas station attendant who fled from North Korea sometime earlier. New co-worker Soonhee (Kim Sae-byuk) is an ethnic Korean recently escaped from China, trying to keep her head down and earn much-needed dough while fending off the unwanted attentions of their exploitative manager (Kim Jeong-seok). After a violent altercation with the boss, Joon and Soonhee skip out and spend some days wandering the city together — the helmer inserts a pleasant interlude by first shooting a tourist touch-screen map that locates a destination, and then cutting to the two strolling in the selected place.
In another part of the city, pretty-boy Hyun (Yeom Hyun-joon, more than just a cute face) is kept by businessman Seonghoon (Lim Hyung-kook) in a chic apartment aerie. It’s not exactly a mutual love match, but Seonghoon, apparently mostly living with his wife, is obsessed, and jealous that Hyun still goes out occasionally.
Kim weaves in a few temporal shifts, just enough to fill in gaps and offer hints of the future that serve as anticipatory landmarks. The pressbook synopsis provides more background than appears in the pic, but nothing feels missing in the storyline, which unexpectedly brings Joon and Hyun together just after the 90-minute mark, when the opening credits finally appear. Their dreamlike pairing takes the pic to a surprisingly effective level beyond reality, though the disappearance of Soonhee from the screen is abrupt, as if the character were only ever an afterthought.
The helmer carefully delineates the two young men’s worlds: Joon is mostly seen in daytime and ground level, whereas Hyun is either in the penthouse apartment high above the skyline, generally at night, or in a windowless club. Where Joon is straightjacketed by his position as a North Korean outsider, pounding the pavement without a sense of belonging, Hyun, thanks to his looks, has power, though he’s incapable of wielding it in a way that makes him happy. Whether auds feel the twinning of these two marginalized figures works will depend on how involved they are in the film as a whole.
Lensing by Kang Kook-hyun is elegant and deeply satisfying, luxuriating in contrasts between the city’s brutal cacophony and the warm lighting of the sophisticated yet sterile penthouse. Editing is beautifully measured, though a bit of trimming wouldn’t go amiss.