FILM REVIEW Seoul Searching : More 80s than the 80s it seeks to emulate

And at long, long last I have finally seen Benson Lee's 'Seoul Searching' a coming of age 'Saved By the Bell' meets 'The Outsiders' in a based on the true story of one Korean American kid (or two) kind of Korean diaspora docuCinefilm.  

According the the film's prologue after the Korean War many Koreans chose to leave their home country to raise their families abroad but as their descendants became less and less 'Korean' (extra emphasis on the air quotes) the government chose to fund summer camps for their lost generation of Korean-foreign misfits.  In a massive import of Korean kids the reverse student exchange program aimed to socially repatriate the children of Korea to strengthen their Korean identity.

In numerous interviews Korean American filmmaker and director of Seoul Searching, Benson Lee (Planet B-Boy, Battle of the Year) as said again and again how much he grew up on the 80s films of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, 16 Candles) but felt frustrated by their depiction of Asian Americans. 

Seoul Searching is Lee's ode to the 80s teen dramedy while simultaneously aiming to right the wrongs of Hollywood's slanted casting of predominantly white actors and filmmakers.  

The Breakfast Club” begins with an old dramatic standby. You isolate a group of people in a room, you have them talk, and eventually they exchange truths about themselves and come to new understandings.
— Roger Ebert

Seoul Searching shares The Breakfast Club's universal themes of teen angst and high school stereotypes but emphasises the backgrounds of the characters much more than any Hughes film, but then again when race/ethinicity is so closely tied into identity of an individual's make-up that's a given to the conversation.  A fact that 'white people' in the United States still struggle to understand or fight to deny for fear of being left out of a conversation they don't know how to be a part of.

In one of my favorite scenes of the film Mr. Kim, played by South Korean heartthrob In-Pyo Cha, asks the students 'What does it mean to be Korean?' A hungover Sid, played by a brilliant Justin Chon, bluntly replies 'Being Korean means to be punished for not understanding what it means to be Korean.'

Justin Chon playing Sid Park

Justin Chon playing Sid Park

This line was everything more to me, more than every other story line and theme this one line really got to the root of many of the issues of Asian Americans suffer with, the dual expectations of pleasing the expectations of their Korean/Chinese/Indian/Japanese parents while struggling to fit into an American society with superficial understandings of Asian heritage. 

If there was no other takeaway from this film for anyone that ISN'T Asian-American, please watch this scene, again and again and AGAIN until it is burned into your brain.  Then the next time you feel like asking 'Where are you really from?' just stop, because if someone wants to discuss the intimate details of their heritage, the very DNA that makes them who they are, well there has to be a better question otherwise you're just superficially curious and not culturally engaged in the discourse that the question could potentially lead to.  

Everything the film lacked in graceful transitions and a balance of character development for a rich two hour feature film was forgiven for the telling of an old story in a new visually appealing manner.  Plus this guy was SUPER hot.

Actor Tee Yoo plays Klaus Kim in Seoul Searching

Actor Tee Yoo plays Klaus Kim in Seoul Searching

To really shine as a feature film Seoul Searching was in dire need of the hard decisions to cut out scenes from some of the extraneous characters (Sue-Jin and Jamie in particular) to let the leading stories fully engage the audience.  That said every character in the film (especially Sue-Jin and Jamie) needs their own spin-off film, tv series or reality show, I was that curious about each of their unique stories. 

I wanted to like Seoul Searching SO much more than I did, but then again we always expect more from Asians.

I watched Seoul Searching on opening night of the Austin Asian American Film Festival.




Mariko Lochridge

International TV news journalist, content creator and storyteller. Google me to learn more or follow me on twitter @MarikoLochridge