Moving to a small suburban city with his father, academically gifted student E-seop (Jang Yoo-sang (장유상) begins attending the local high school where he quickly earns a reputation for his intelligence. While at school E-seop becomes entranced by fellow student Ha-yun (Ha Yoon-gyeong (하윤경) as well as her far from admirable attitude towards studying. Through the unlikely friendship that blossoms between them E-seop is introduced to local criminal Gil-su (Lee Seo-joon (이서준), and as the three disaffected, abandoned youths attempt to carve out an existence they are confronted with the dangers of society.
Stay With Me is a compelling and interesting exploration of the ways in which young people from different economic backgrounds are forsaken in contemporary society. Director Rhee Jin-woo (이진우) effectively employs three quite diverse and highly symbolic protagonists to interrogate the sense of alienation and abandonment teens are susceptible to, with the sense of melancholy permeating the narrative heightened by his impressive colour-draining visual aesthetic.
The manner in which director Rhee unifies such disparate youths is potent. Wealthy and intelligent E-seop may appear to be a model student with a bright future, yet his life is devoid of both a mother and emotional connection. His pressurising father, in conjunction with an extremely clinical and sparse homestead, expresses E-seop’s loneliness well. Meanwhile independent and strong-willed Ha-yun is also isolated through her mother’s hospitalisation and a care worker who, ironically, doesn’t particularly care. Gil-su lives alone, living on the profits of petty crime and taking leadership of other youths who have also been disowned and have nowhere to go. The unlikely trio are attracted to each other through their shared sense of desertion and unspoken depression, and director Rhee does a great job in articulating the complexity of their characters without judging them or the decisions that lead them astray.
Yet while Stay With Me is an interesting exploration, it generally feels slight in its examination of youth issues as the narrative focuses primarily on the actions of the present without delving into the psychological trauma of their respective pasts. While it is clear that all the protagonists are burdened with neurosis stemming from years prior, the story doesn’t take the time to reveal or reflect on how such experiences inform their current actions or, perhaps more importantly, why audiences should engage with them. Gil-su suffers the most in this respect and as such becomes little more than a one-dimensional thug, and while E-seop fairs better his characterisation goes little beyond being a well-meaning yet overly sensitive kid with a crush.
Ironically, the most powerful and emotionally resonating story belongs to the character mostly relegated to a supporting role – Ha-yun. Just as with fellow K-competition film To Be Sixteen, the heart of Stay With Me belongs to the strong-willed female protagonist often forced to the sidelines in favour of the male counterparts. While the narrative takes an inordinate amount of time to get there, once the story shifts to hinting at Ha-yun’s abusive past the film becomes ever more compelling, although the manner in which director Rhee employs an increasing amount of violent sexual assault scenarios to allude to her history leaves a lot to be desired. Unfortunately such impetus comes too late in the running time, leading to a somewhat unsatisfying finale for the disaffected youths and audience alike.
Stay With Me is an interesting examination of how teenagers from diverse backgrounds are unified in their sense of alienation and abandonment in modern society. Director Rhee Jin-woo expresses their loneliness well, however the lack of depth applied to the central protagonists results in an examination that feels slight. Fortunately the film finds a heart through the character of Ha-yun yet it arrives too late, making Stay With Me a well-made but slender expose on a timely issue.