‘Seoul Searching’: Sundance Review

Seoul Searching
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Almost the same as it ever was

Justin Chon and Jessika Van co-star in Benson Lee’s South Korea-set period comedy

The 80s come roaring back in Korean-American writer-director Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching, an inventive tribute to John Hughes-style teen comedies. Liberally riffing on situations and themes familiar from the high school-set movies that established the renowned writer-director’s legacy, Lee has crafted an entertaining alternative interpretation that substitutes an international cast of Asian actors for Hughes’ largely white, suburban ensembles.

Powered by an instantly recognizable, dance-happy soundtrack and a charismatic cast turned out in memorable period costuming, Lee’s most accessible film yet looks poised to capitalize on enduring 80s nostalgia and a refreshingly appealing premise that could see the film crossing over from niche bookings to much broader appeal.

In case you missed it, suddenly it’s 1986 all over again, as a group of overseas-born high school kids of Korean descent arrives in Seoul for a government-sponsored cultural immersion summer camp, just as punk rock takes its last gasp and dance-pop blithely asserts its ascendancy. Converging from North America and Europe, many have never visited South Korea before and some don’t even speak their parents’ native language, but that’s not going to stop them from devising a variety of universal forms of communication.

It’s pretty clear from the get-go that antisocial punker and Sex Pistols worshipper Sid Park (Justin Chon) can’t hide his contempt (or his desire) for girly Madonna-wannabe Grace (Jessika Van), but the Americans are just as put off by encountering kids like Sergio (Esteban Ahn) from Mexico and German teen Klaus (Teo Yoo), who seem nothing like the Asian Americans they’re familiar with from back home. They’ll all be taking classes in Korean language, calligraphy and martial arts under the watchful supervision of Mr. Kim (Cha In-Pyo), a former top high school tutor, now demoted to camper director. 

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Sergio’s priority, however, is giving some of the young ladies lessons in Latin romance (although he’ll have to prioritize his top choices first), but he’s not getting much help from Klaus, who has a German girlfriend back home, or Sid, whose early unpleasant encounter with Grace puts him off thoughts of dating straight-away. His main challenge will be avoiding Mr. Kim, who’s singled Sid out as a troublemaker who needs firm guidance. In order to focus on their real priorities (partying and hooking up, natch), the kids are going to have to work together to outwit the school authorities if they expect to experience a summer they’ll never forget.

Basing his script on “the best summer of my life” as an American teen sent to South Korea on a similar program, Lee effortlessly elaborates a singular concept for showcasing a sparkling cast of young performers, some getting substantial exposure for the first time. Striking a persuasive tonal balance appears somewhat trickier, however.

Although Lee fairly seamlessly adapts the teen coming-of-age comedy template to an all-Asian setting, combining American humor with typical Korean melodrama makes for a somewhat uneasy pairing. A subplot concerning the consequences of Sid’s anti-authoritarian attitude dovetails rather too coincidentally with Mr. Kim’s own personal tragedy, for instance, leading to a tearful moment of male bonding. Another that involves Klaus assisting American adoptee Kris (Rosalina Leigh) to improbably reunite with her Korean birth mother brims with all of the weepy emotionality of a TV drama, albeit displaying a greater degree of complexity.

Lee’s enthusiasm for the material makes it easy to overlook such distractions, however, as his script infuses the characters with abundant attitude and verve. Although Chon may not offer any real surprises as the disaffected Sid, he competently carries the film’s core role, stirring up conflict in almost every scene. Van brings an authentic and uncanny affinity for the Material Girl’s persona to her interpretation of Madonna-style and attitude, which only serves to highlight Grace’s thinly concealed vulnerability as a neglected pastor’s kid from New Jersey. 

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Among the real revelations is Spaniard Esteban Ahn, who plays Mexican student Sergio as an all-out macho lothario who’s literally and figuratively brought to his knees when he falls for a Korean woman who’s a Tae Kwon Do expert. As one of the few who actually speaks Korean, German student Klaus fulfills a key role, which Yoo accomplishes with a dash of humility and gravitas otherwise mostly absent among the other characters.

Lee’s fluency with the conventions of high school comedies and familiarity with the cultural specifics of the period pay dividends, yielding a fluid visual style and consistent attention to revealing character details. Choice musical selections from the likes of The Clash, The Go-GosCulture Club and The Cars help maintain the film’s carefree momentum, while costume designer Shirley Kurata’s creations may inspire a belated run on vintage stores for similar clothing in just the right shades of candy pink and Jell-o yellow. 

Production company: Bowery Hills Entertainment

Cast: Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Cha In-Pyo, Kang Byul, Esteban Ahn, Teo Yoo, Rosalina Leigh

Director-writer: Benson Lee

Producers: Benson Lee, Andrea Chung

Executive producers: Henry Shaw, Xiaopeng Wang, Sam Shui

Director of photography: Daniel Katz

Costume designer: Shirley Kurata

Editors: Steven M. Choe, Benson Lee

Music: Woody Pak

Sales: Preferred Content

No rating, 105 minutes