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Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #69: ‘Seoul Searching’ is the Angsty ’80s Korean Teen Dramedy You Never Realized You Wanted

Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers #69: 'Seoul Searching' is the Angsty '80s Korean Teen Dramedy You Never Realized You Wanted

Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching” is “The Breakfast Club” for South Korean suburbanites with a modern sensibility, an ’80s setting, and a lot of heart. If it sounds like a hodgepodge of, like, total awesomeness, dude, that’s what he’s aiming for.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

It’s a teen comedy/drama about a disparate group of Korean teens from around the world. They come together during the summer of 1986 to attend a special summer school in Seoul where they were sent to learn about their Korean heritage. Of course, the last thing on any teens mind is their “heritage.” The story focuses on three boys — a punker from LA, a conservative student from Germany, and a Latin lover from Mexico who meet three girls who rock their world!

Now what’s it REALLY about?

It’s about the beauty of youth with all its angst, rebellion and acne. It’s about teens who go through a radical transformation when they come to terms with their deepest fears. It’s about 80’s pop culture, music and fashion. It’s about the sweetest summer of your life when you come of age that remains with you forever.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

I’m a Korean American filmmaker born in Toronto and raised in the East coast of the U.S. I was heavily influenced by foreign movies which inspired me to travel and live in different cultures throughout the world. I directed my first feature in London that premiered at Sundance in 1998 titled “Miss Monday.” I made a documentary about the resurgence of breakdancing around the globe called “Planet B-boy.” I directed the 3D adaptation of my doc for Sony Pictures titled “Battle of the Year.” I LOVE working with actors and I have the deepest respect for the craft. I also have a knack for working with non actors. I’m an optimist at heart and hope is my favorite four letter word.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

It took me 15 years to finance my movie. Financiers found it difficult to invest in a teen comedy with an all Asian cast that takes place in Seoul in 1986. They couldn’t figure out if it was an American film or a Korean film, which made them confused on how to position and market the movie. In addition to that, making a movie in your own country and language is hard enough, but filming in a foreign country makes it incredibly more daunting. Although we were very fortunate to work with an amazing production service company, my command of the Korean language is pretty basic so I had to constantly surround myself with translators. There were so many instances where the most basic ideas were misconstrued or lost in translation.

What do you want Sundance audience to take away from your film?

That it is (or was) great to be a teen. That teen movies can have depth and be funny at the same time. That Asian actors deserve to be in more leading roles. Nostalgia for the 80’s or a time before the internet and smart phones. That 80’s music rules.

Any Films Inspire You?

For this particular film I was influenced by the 80’s teen movies of John Hughes, especially “The Breakfast Club.” I feel he brought a sense of depth to his characters and style through fashion and music that was uncommon for that genre. l’m also heavily influenced by Ang Lee who I respect for his strong character development and his ability to make Asian characters and stories universal for a broader audience. In terms of cinematography, I love the bold colors of Wong Kar Wai’s older movies and the extremely stylish and kinetic camera work of his DP Christopher Doyle.

What’s next?

I’m currently living in Seoul, Korea where I’m developing a new English language series based on the stories of expats living there. Imagine Lost in Translation in 2015 where foreigners from around the world are speaking fluent Korean and going through some life altering experiences in contemporary Seoul.

What cameras did you shoot on?

Arri Alexa Studio with Kowa lenses. Since I was making an 80’s film, my goal was to avoid that crispy digital look that pervades most movies these days. My DP, Daniel Katz, found these Kowa anamorphic lenses from Japan that were used in 60’s Japanese cinema. I couldn’t have been happier with the results.

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform.

No, but I wish I did and I definitely intend to do so for my next project.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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