Futureless Things (Korea: 2014): one never knows what’s in store next

Kyung-mook Kim’s off-beat third feature focuses on the everyday and sometimes surreal interactions in a convenience store. Futureless Things is more a series of comedy sketches than a unified narrative, but since everyone eventually needs a Coke, the setting is a good one to explore the many layers of contemporary society and the dreamers who find themselves stuck behind counters for a moment.

Rating
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At 30 years old, independent Korean director Kyung-mook Kim is entering a phase of his career where he no longer can be considered a wunderkind, but is still young enough to explore the possibilities of making films at the margins of the Korean film industry. He’s been directing and writing since he was 20, somehow managing to move from runaway high school dropout to popular columnist and into film directing. His past films have covered topics of transexuality, illegal immigration and homosexuality with a certain amount of sexual frankness and use of alternative styles of film-making that are unusual for Korean films. Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan films designed to appeal too much to art house and festival audiences – I’m too mainstream for that nonsense – but I found his previous feature, Stateless Things (2011), engaging enough to flag him as a director whose development is worth looking forward to. Futureless Things finds Kim lightening up considerably with a diversion into comedy, a welcome change from the “I’m-messing-with-your-head” pretension of the previous film.

Futureless Things is set in a suburban convenience store in Seoul. It opens with a transition. Hana (Yoo Young) is training her replacement, Ki-Chul (Gong Myung) in inventory. There is a moment when they start to discuss the attractiveness of customers when a phone call causes Hana to break down. Comforting her, it would appear that the movie is setting us up for a standard romance, except Ki-chul has a boyfriend he’s not comfortable talking about while Hana is breaking up with her girlfriend. That sketch over, Kim moves on to a different shift and a new clerk, an aspiring actor who is trapped in the store by unusually talkative customers while trying to leave to make a casting call. Followed by another shift in which an unemployed customer picks a fight with a clerk from North Korea with a mysterious scar. And so on through about a dozen shifts manned by different clerks.

The clerks work in an interesting store that everyone goes to, and because everyone does, it is a good setting to satirize the common interactions between social classes. Characters seldom appear more than once in Futureless Things. The store maintains a large staff working short shifts, although it isn’t clear until late in the film that these clerks and their stories may be imagined by a bored clerk to pass his time during an empty shift. There isn’t much plot per se, as the scenes might be drawn from a number of experiences from different clerks who were asked to tell an interesting work story. The movie employs a wide range of comedic forms, from observational to surreal and light to dark, and if you like consistency this probably isn’t the film for you. I found it enjoyable after I stopped looking for connections and common threads and just let the unexpected randomness of what should be a mundane job surprise me. The film really isn’t heading anywhere final…the title says as much.

Not all of the sketches work, but there are enough that do to warrant a recommendation if one is in need of a low-key chuckle. Highlights for me included Paul Lee as a clerk who is learning English from recorded lessons that appear to be preparing him to participate in unlikely and mildly unpleasant conversations, and the aforementioned lost audition. While it is a rather hopeless and often absurd place to work, I can understand why the customers out of habit will wait outside th store when the doors are locked rather than choose to go to another one of the thousands of stores that stock the exact same products. Shopping there can be a journey to the unknown if one is willing to work against the human impulse to tune out prosaic surroundings.

Futureless Things is going to be Kim’s last feature for a number of years, as he sorts out some significant legal problems. I hope when he returns that he is able to work with TPTB in the industry to resume his career. Its probably a challenge for him to get back on track, but Futureless Things shows a director who is able to create movies that are entertaining while remaining sufficiently independent to offer satisfying diversions from standard fare.

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