Busan 2020 Review: YOUNG ADULT MATTERS, An Explosive and Frequently Engrossing Runaway Teen Drama
Three years after his abrasive debut Park Hwa-young, director Lee Hwan returns to Busan with Young Adult Matters, an intense and frequently engrossing follow-up set in the same world of foul-mouthed, unpredictable and violent runaway teens. While it inherits many of the same problems that plagued his first effort (at least for this reviewer), Lee has grown in leaps and bounds as a stylist and crafted something fresh and vibrant, while lead Lee Yoo-mi - reprising her supporting role from Lee's earlier film - is manic and magnetic as a character that could easily be at home in a Tetsuya Nakashima film.
High schooler Se-jin (Lee Yoo-mi) lives with her younger sister and is bullied at school for being a freak who slashes her arms on live Instagram feeds, though this doesn't seem to bother her in the slightest. In fact nothing seems to upset her, not even discovering that she's been made pregnant by the principal's teacher son or that her lesbian lover is actually the leader of the bullies at school, beating her to a pulp during the day and making up in secret at night.
After running away from school she wanders the streets and before long meets fellow runaway Ju-yeong, playing by EXID Kpop star Hani. They quickly hit it off and after a dicey meeting with a middle-aged creep, their crew grows when they're saved by Jae-pil and Sin-ji. The four of them eke out a dangerous life on the streets as they try to help Se-jin get the money she needs for an abortion.
Whereas Park Hwa-young was set in winter and largely took place in the same small dank house crawling with violent underage drifters, Young Adult Matters is set under the scorching summer sun and plays out in a range of vibrant locations, from Se-jin drifting on her longboard along the banks of the Han River during the day, to the neon-lit bowling alleys and karaoke bars that she frequents at night. With its rap soundtrack and slick longboarding sequences, the setting could at times almost be mistaken for Los Angeles, rather than the gritty and grimy Seoul we're normally introduced to in Korean runaway dramas.
Beyond Se-jin's desire for an abortion, Young Adult Matters has very little narrative drive, and while the characters are all vivid and watchable, it's never clear what makes them tick, which makes it hard for some of the film's bigger (and typically violent) scenes later on to land. As with his debut, Lee seems keen to give his cast (himself included as Jae-pil) a chance to show off, but you won't find any character-building moments here as the narrative elides the small stuff as it swings from one big event to the next.
There's no shortage of energy in the film but at over two hours and with so little downtime it can be a draining experience and mileage will likely vary with viewers. That said, Lee's in-your-face approach has improved dramatically in this second outing. With a more clearly constructed world and more balanced approach, the frequent bad language, wincingly violent interludes and desperate circumstances of the characters feel less gratuitous - they've become balanced elements of a bigger, more richly constructed world.
As played by Lee Yoo-mi, Se-jin is a fascinating if confounding creation who occasionally feels less like a spirited wayward youth than an utter lunatic. It takes a little getting used to but once the gang gets together and her oddball performance becomes a little more digestible as part of an ensemble. Hani is thoroughly convincing in her first major big screen role, though sadly her character is ultimately a little sidelined in favor of Lee Hwan's blue-haired Jae-pil, who bottles up his frustrations until he explodes.
Young Adult Matters is a vast improvement for Lee but it also makes it clear what his weaknesses are, namely his compulsive need to turn everything up to eleven, whether the story needs it or not. It also turns out to be an interesting pairing with Snowball, one of the New Currents selections this year in Busan, another runway teen drama with a lesbian subplot that takes far greater pains to build its characters and story, but does so with a familiar indie drama aesthetic. Lee's film, on the other hand, rather than feeling like an adult drama about youths, often feels like one made by and for them.