Given a lack of funds (or press accreditation) at the London Film Festival, I set out to see something I wasn’t likely to see elsewhere. Which lead me to Stateless Things.
It’s a Korean film which hasn’t had much attention elsewhere and sounded kind of interesting to me for a couple of reasons:
- It featured two interconnected stories, and I’m a sucker for multi-stranded narratives.
- It was about displaced young North Koreans trying to cope in South Korea – a subject I’d never seen on film before and sounded socially interesting. Also, I like catching Asian films whenever I can.
- It involved some kind of male prostitution, which seemed to give it that edgy, hard hitting, film festival style subject matter.
And all those things mentioned are true of it. But what I wasn’t prepared for were the long takes during scenes of wandering (or riding a scooter), and lots of gay sex. Now I don’t have a problem with either of these things, and actually the film wouldn’t have worked so well without them, but I got the feeling that the majority of the audience I watched the film with at the ICA thought both were a bit silly and trying.
It’s one of those ‘foreign films’ that goes for a kind of arty realism: shots are prolonged, the lighting is all natural, the cameras are handheld, and the digital video it’s shot on isn’t very high quality. At times this adds to the charm, at others the handheld close-ups and non-existent lighting make things hard to decipher.
Story wise, some things are left purposefully ambiguous which can be seen as either profound or frustrating. Stateless Things straddles both. What it does do well though it portray two separate stories about the hard times North Koreans face in the South, without proper paperwork or any rights they are essentially in limbo – they’re stateless things. The first chapter sees a young man working as a petrol station attendant who is basically abused and extorted by his boss. Running away, he struggles to find work or a purpose in life and ends up in male prostitution. The second story is about the ‘kept boy’ of a wealthy businessman. Despite being provided for and living in affluent conditions he is essentially a prisoner in the home provided for him. Inevitably the two stories converge and what follows in the last half hour or so is equally interesting and silly.
Stateless Things is a ‘typical’ festival film in many ways. But if you look back at my reasons above, you’ll see that, really, I watched it because it was a typical festival film. It’s good, not amazing, but it has some nice things to say about contemporary Korea – both about that nation’s treatment of their northern neighbours and, also, their attitudes towards gay sex.