Day 3 of the 8th Annual Las Vegas Film Festival was somewhat of a wash (pun intended) for me, as work responsibilities and heavy rains kept me away from most of the events. I did manage to squeeze in a viewing of Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching and was very happy that I did.
Seoul Searching is described by the Las Vegas Film Festival’s official program as
A 1980’s John Hughes inspired romantic teen comedy about a group of Korean misfits from around the world forced by their parents to attend a cultural propaganda camp in Seoul resulting in the best summer of their lives.
The comparison to Hughes is apt, as Lee’s film features an ensemble of actors portraying adolescents who are sent to a camp to learn about their Korean heritage, but end up learning more about themselves. The film excellently balances campy 80’s humor (the film is set in 1986) with powerfully emotional scenes in which the youths come to terms with the relationships with their parents. But unlike The Breakfast Club, Seoul Searching has its characters reaching out to parents and teachers for guidance and reconciliation. Whereas Hughes’ classic comedies feature adults who are essentially nonexistent in their children’s growth process, Seoul Searching focuses equally on the emotions and challenges of the adults tasked to care for this band of youthful misfits as it does on the misfits themselves. Seoul Searching is a teenage comedy movie that let’s teenagers know that adulthood does not mean an end to emotional confusion and the challenges of life. Nowhere is this more present than in the two most powerful scenes in the movie.
The first involves Justin Chon as punk rock obsessed “Sid Park”, a kid with authority issues. When the friction between “Sid” and his teacher “Mr. Kim” (In-Pyo Cha) reaches its inevitable peak, the pair find themselves reaching common ground and understanding despite their apparent differences. Their “man-to-man” talk demonstrates that two generations ultimately have to admit that they must learn from each other.
The second scene involves Rosalina Leigh’s character “Chris Schultz”. In the romantic highlight of the film, she strikes up an initially platonic friendship with Teo Yoo’s character “Klaus Kim”, who helps her get in touch with the Korean mother who put her up for adoption as a child. The final meeting between Leigh and her birth mother was an emotionally powerful performance which reinforced that Seoul Searching was a movie about reconciliation with our parents, not just misguided teenage angst.
Of course the movie is billed as a comedy, and the laughs are delivered at a steady rate. The absolute comedy standout in this movie was Esteban Ahn as “Sergio Kim”. All the more surprising considering that Ahn had never worked as an actor before and was discovered via his youtube alter ego “Coreano Loco”. In fact at the Q & A session after the screening, Lee said that he cast the entire movie via Facebook, with several of the actors/actresses having little to no prior acting experience. Lee’s strategy paid off, with the actors/actresses playing fresh and energetic version of themselves on screen with a natural chemistry that was readily apparent.
Although the movie begins with a full-out comedy assault, eventually the laughs are balanced out with the emotional drama that truly sets Seoul Searching apart from the period genres that it is compared to. By the end of the movie I found that in every scene I was either laughing or getting choked up. Overall it was a very well written movie with a unique concept. The icing on the cake was the 1980’s soundtrack, which leaves no doubt that any fan of 1980’s teenage comedies will thoroughly enjoy Seoul Searching.