“Seoul Searching,” an ’80s-set teen comedy written and directed by Benson Lee, had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and was a homecoming of sorts for Lee. His previous film, “Miss Monday,” also premiered at the fest in 1998, winning a Special Jury Award for star Andrea Hart’s performance. After Sundance, the coming-of-age film also hit the Seattle International Film Festival (where it won the Futurewave Youth Jury Award), CAAMFest (where it won an Audience Award for Best Narrative film), and as it arrives as the Los Angeles Film Festival it provided me a second chance to take a look at the movie.
When I first caught the film back at Sundance, I was moved by its performances and equally impressed by its stellar ’80s soundtrack, which features cuts from The Clash (“Should I Stay or Should I Go”), Spandau Ballet (“True”), Erasure (“A Little Respect”), and Art of Noise (“Moments of Love”). However, the second time seeing “Seoul Searching” at LAFF, I began to appreciate more of the film’s technical aspects, such as the cinematography by Daniel Katz (“Before I Disappear”) and the writing, with Lee basing the screenplay off his real-life experiences during the self-proclaimed “best summer of his life”.
The film takes place in 1986 and revolves around a group of Korean teens from all over the world participating in a Seoul-based summer camp designed to teach them about the culture of their “motherland,” South Korea. The program was a real initiative started in the ’80s, but it soon closed its doors after the organizers realized how unruly the kids were, and how difficult they were to control. Central to the film, and standing in as Lee’s alter ego, is Sid Kim (Justin Chon), a punk rock enthusiast who, like his namesake Sid Vicious, dresses in a leather jacket and sports a spiked hair-do. He meets a Madonna-wannabe named Grace Kim (Jessika Van). We then get introduced to a wide array of different characters that make up “The Breakfast Club”-like diverse cast: you have the Mexican-Korean “Latin Lover” character of Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn); the refined, German “gentleman” Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo); Kris Schultz (Rosalina Leigh), a Korean American adoptee curious about her birth parents; Sue Jin (Byul Kim), a tomboyish Tae-Kwon Do expert; Sara (Sue Son), a posh and preppy British-Korean; a conflicted, perpetually angry U.S. military cadet named Mike, played expertly by Albert Kong, who hates the Japanese and tries to woo Grace; a mixed-race Black/Korean character named Jamie (Crystal Kay); and a carefree, ad-libbing rapper named Chow, played by Heejun Han (most known for his appearances on “American Idol”).
This crazy group of kids is supervised by the stern and occasionally alcoholic Mr. Kim, played by veteran Korean actor In-Pyo Cha (“Crossing”, “Mr Iron Palm”). The film progresses as the students take various classes to learn about their heritage — language, calligraphy, martial arts, and so on. However, the guys soon grow bored, and resort to rule-breaking antics, romance blossoms as relationships develop, and the characters experience personal growth and lessons learned befitting the ’80s throwback genre style.
The film is most effective in treading themes of love, loss, and turbulent teen emotions, reading like a cinematic love letter to the films of John Hughes but filtered through a contemporary Korean American sensibility that foregoes the white suburban denizens and stereotypical caricatures of Hughes’ more memorable classics. Through the soundtrack, references to ’80s films and TV shows like “Miami Vice,” and the exceptional wardrobe from costume designer Shirley Kurata, we also feel the full effect of ’80s nostalgia that serves as the perfect backdrop for these diverse characters that hail from a variety of different cultural backgrounds.
Screen time-wise, “Seoul Searching” also gives fair treatment to each of the main characters, with Chon delivering a solid, “Rebel Without a Cause”-esque performance that unconsciously channels James Dean. Van also skillfully paints a layered and nuanced portrayal of a character that hides behind an exterior of tough behavior. The comic as well as romantic dynamic between the two leads, Chon and Van, is engaging — fueled by an entertaining back and forth of posturing and counter-posturing to see who is “badder” — as is the “bromantic” camaraderie between Chon and his roommates, Klaus and Sergio. Ahn’s scene-stealing performance as Sergio leaves the most hilarious impressions well after the film ends. Overall, the script is exceedingly well-structured and tells a hilarious and moving tale about characters that some audience members may not be used to seeing on the big screen, but who they will inevitably find universally relatable. “Seoul Searching” may be familiar in style to the films Benson Lee clearly loves, but it will tug at the heartstrings of a brand new generation of moviegoers. [A-]