Seoul Searching (2016)
dir. Benson Lee
written by: Benson Lee
starring: Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Teo Yoo, Esteban Ahn, Rosalina Lee, Albert Kong
3.5 out of 4 stars
My best reviewed film of the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival was Andrew Ahn’s film Spa Night, a movie following a closeted Korean-American man attempting to make ends meet for his family by working at a Korean spa which is also a popular cruising spot for gay men. This film not only highlights the immigrant experience, specifically that of an LGBT individual, but it also serves as a rare entry of an Asian-American man viewed as a masculine, sexual character. Far too few movies are produced in the United States regarding this population, and seeing Spa Night with the director present for discussion was a treat.
An even more impressive feat was encountered in film festival favorite Seoul Searching, an outstanding dramedy based on a real summer school in Seoul, South Korea, that attempted to introduce displaced Korean teens to their cultural heritage. Based in 1986, this movie brings together the children of emmigrants from the United States, Germany, Mexico, the UK and beyond to discover the land their parents fled following the Korean War. From wherever the students arrived, their cultural history is distant in their heavily assimilated foreign lives. The movie provides a narrative of what happens when shared national heritage does not eliminate a clash of cultures.
Unlike any movie I’ve seen before, Seoul Searching opens like a John Hughes movie and develops its own style as the archetypes lose their quirks and find similarities in their adolescence. Young men and women from all walks of life and familial history, musical tastes, and volume of eyeliner descend on the camp ready to explore where they came from, along with each other’s bodies, alcohol tolerance, and intercultural patience, in order to decipher what makes them connected and why their parents are the way they are. Featuring an outstanding ensemble cast, writer-director Benson Lee transforms what appears to be a 1980s glossy comedy into a heartfelt, hilarious, thought provoking surprise of a movie. This is The Breakfast Club with modern dramatic sensibilities. Placing issues of race and culture within a shared background opened the arena for diverse characters memorable without recognizable names.
Benson Lee delivers a rapidly developing story for his summer camp attendees. Rarely introduced with blatant exposition, the issues faced by the travelers range from parental violence and neglect, to racism in their home country, to communication issues with family, and the ever present feeling that parents are disappointed in their Korean children who are unfamiliar with what it means to be Korean. Highlighting the strongest arc, German born Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo) translates for adopted Ohioan Kris Schultz (Rosalina Lee). Two powerful scenes introducing Kris to her biological mother open doors to the power of blood relation above the language barrier. The mother, played by Jia Park, bleeds a heartbreaking performance of emotion in their meetings, and during their solo meeting, lacking translation with the Korean dialogue, the mother’s piercing delivery left me stunned and teary-eyed.
Sharing the screen with the hilarious Esteban Ahn as Mexican Sergio Kim, tough but misunderstood Sid Park (Justin Chon), Madonna-styled bad girl Grace Park (Jessika Van), and angry military racist Mike Song (Albert Kong), the ensemble cast blends into the deeply personal story. Culture and history do not define us, but rather they introduce us to the people from which we descended. Benson Lee created an altogether original take on the 80s-style summer romance. A stereotype cannot be found in his talented cast, a delight for an underserved demographic. See this one, no matter your race; you’ll find yourself as surprised as I was.