With his mother admitted to hospital and unable to communicate well with his layabout father, shy teenager Se-jun (Kim Joo-yeop (김주엽) is adrift in the countryside town in which he resides. His only friend is local bad-boy Jin-young (Jo Ha-seong (조하성), who tends to exploit him more than a genuine pal would. Yet while Se-jun endures the rather one-sided friendship, he also harbours a crush on Jin-young’s girlfriend Su-kyeong (Lee Joo-woo (이주우), presenting her with gifts and kindness she otherwise wouldn’t receive. As the disaffected teens roam the rural area smoking, drinking and enjoying their newly acquired freedom, Su-kyeong confides an intimate secret to Se-jun that threatens to drive them all apart.
To Be Sixteen is a slow-burning yet insightful drama of disaffected teens living on the fringes of society. Director Kim Hyeon-seung (김현승) constructs the isolation and loneliness experienced by contemporary youths extremely well, depicting the angst and frustrations that come with the age through the character of Se-jun, an introverted yet kind-hearted youngster, and the turbulent relationships he has with friends and family that cause immense stress. As a shy teen, rather than confront the injustices he perceives Se-jun instead internalises the negativity they generate. Whether due his mother’s illness or father’s stock market gambling, or the friends that abuse his good nature, Se-jun’s suffering is conveyed through his longing gaze, the washed-out tones and the melancholia that permeates the film.
Unfortunately however, Se-jun simply isn’t an interesting enough protagonist to place at the centre of the narrative. While his personal problems are challenging they are not particularly compelling, whilst the manner in which Se-jun tends to deal with conflict is to remain silent and appear sullen. This results in an inordinate number of dramatic pauses that occur so frequently that the tension generated from them is ultimately diluted, and becomes a source of frustration.
Instead, it is Su-kyeong who is by far the most interesting character within To Be Sixteen, and it’s a shame she is relegated to supporting status when her trajectory is much more engaging. Wonderfully portrayed as equal parts vulnerable and stubbornly independent by actress Lee Joo-woo, Su-kyeong’s story resonates emotionally as well as touching on multiple societal issues within contemporary Korea that open teenage debates far greater than the sources of Se-jun’s angst. As with other K-competition film Stay With Me, it falls to the supporting female role to provide the heart and soul of the film, and it is unfortunate that director Kim didn’t place Su-kyeong as the main protagonist.
To Be Sixteen also contains further issues due to excess. Several scenes and cutaway shots are superfluous and add very little to the proceedings – particularly the finale, of which there seem to be three – while the supporting cast are of such a number that their contributions to the narrative become diminished as they are not explored in greater detail. In this respect bad-boy Jin-young arguably suffers the most, largely disappearing from the film altogether aside from bookending Se-jun’s tale of loneliness, and as such the emotional core of the shy, introverted teen’s story is interesting yet uninspiring.
To Be Sixteen is a slow-burning yet insightful drama of disaffected teens, expressed through the angst-fuelled story of Se-jun and his strained relationships. Director Kim Hyeon-seung does well in constructing the sense of isolation yet Se-jun’s challenges aren’t especially compelling, especially compared to those of supporting protagonist Su-kyeong. As such, To Be Sixteen is a well-made and interesting yet diluted tale of teenage melancholy.