Seoul Searching is an unabashedly spirited homage to the John Hughes teenage comedies from the 1980s (most notably The Breakfast Club), and though the movie traverses widely tread terrain, writer-director Benson Lee and an engaging ensemble are up for the challenge.
It’s 1986, and a lively group of Korean teenagers from all over the world (including the U.S., Mexico, and Germany) attend a summer camp in Seoul to learn a bit more about their heritage. During a flashy entrance at Gimpo Airport, we are introduced to the youths, which include rebellious punk rock loving Sid (Justin Chon), a Madonna inspired Grace (Jessika Van sporting a Desperately Seeking Susan style get-up!), and the charming, girl crazy Sergio (scene stealer Esteban Ahn).
Sid, Sergio, and the Hamburg hailing Klaus (Teo Yoo) immediately bond as roommates, and during their first night at the dorms, they visit the the ladies (armed, if I recall, with a bottle of whiskey) for a spontaneous party. Though proverbial flirtations and battle of the sexes (including a drinking competition between Sid and Grace) ensue, the sheer likability and innate energy of the cast gives the film’s humor an extra level of depth.
The narrative also has its share of dramatic subplots, as Sid and Grace must battle with their respective demons, and Klaus helps his new friend Kris (Rosalina Leigh) search for her biological mother (Klaus speaks Korean and Kris was adopted by white parents). An always game cast (which also includes memorable work from In-Pyo Cha and Byul Kang) also balances the movie’s lighter and heavier moments with aplomb.
An evocative scene wherein a student calls his father to express his love and gratitude exemplifies Lee’s subtle approach to storytelling. Lee shoots the scene with the actor’s back turned to the camera, and slowly pulls in as the pay phone conversation ensues. The sequence’s power, along with the slow and steady framing of the shot (and the actor’s wonderful performance), also lies in not overstaying its welcome. Lee keeps the moment absolutely real, and it’s just one of several dramatic moments which brings an added touch of gravitas to the proceedings. Since the story is inspired by the director’s own experiences at a Seoul summer camp, the movie’s more predictable moments actually feel organic (artifice and intimacy, at least for this film, are wonderful bedfellows).
The horrific under representation of Asians in cinema is something that won’t change for the better overnight, and it’s great to know that Seoul Searching is a step in the right direction (full disclosure: I’m part Thai and Filipino). But movie fans don’t pay their hard earned money simply for good intentions, and it’s also wonderful that the film scores as a first rate and ultimately heartwarming teen comedy. Opening Friday in New York and the following week in Los Angeles, Seoul Searching a grade-A flick that’s blessed with laughter, heart, and (pun intended) a ton of soul.
We also briefly talk about Seoul Searching on this week’s episode of CinemAddicts (at the 24:46 mark of our media bar), and check out the trailer below!!