Movie Review: “Seoul Searching”

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The characters are ’80s “types” — the Madonna-wannabe, the would-be B-Boys, the punk rock punk, the martial arts geek, etc.

The soundtrack is a John Hughes comedy cliche — a little “Pretty in Pink,” a lot of “Breakfast Club,” with a smidgen of “Grosse Pointe Blank” and an anachronistic exclamation point by Erasure.

But the teens on-the-make, teen drinking, teen brawling and teens coming to grips with troubled childhoods and family histories are Korean. The expats in Benson Lee’s new film have been sent to learn their heritage at a 1980s summer camp. They are, one and all, “Seoul Searching.”

There is absolutely nothing new in this mash-up homage to ’80s cinema, save for its Korean point of view. But that’s enough to bring a smile to your face and the odd belly laugh as cultures clash and even non-Koreans experience those funny flashes of recognition. Kids and kids’ problems are the same, no matter how you were raised.

The problem — children of the Great Post-Korean War Diaspora, families scattered all over the globe, were not growing up Korean Enough. So their parents packed them off from New Jersey and California, Britain, Mexico and Germany, to learn about their history and culture in The Mother Country over summer vacation.

Most don’t speak the Mother Tongue. And their attitudes about respecting elders, gender roles, work ethic and sexuality have been shaped by growing up as racial minorities in other cultures.

They are a puzzlement, even to the hippest Korean teacher (In-Pyo Cha) supervising them.

It’s 1986, and Grace (Jessika Van) is a skinny flirt in full Madonna regalia. The self-named Sid (Justin Chon) never got over Sid Viscious, or The Sex Pistols. Their eyes lock. Only the militant military school Mike (Albert Kong) stands in their way.

“Yo, Billy Idol. I got first dibs on Madonna.”

Sergio (Esteban Ahn) is an over-sexed Mexican kid forever on the make. Kris (Rosalina Leigh) grew up in Jersey, but never met her real parents. Klaus (Teo Yoo) is the respectful German in Hugo Boss “Miami Vice” wear, Marcello the romantic Italian-Korean, and so on. 

They are forbidden from mingling after hours, but they do. They’re not supposed to be drinking, but they do. There’s no “hooking up,” but there is.

Lee puts cliches in the kids’ mouths and hurls these types at one another and lets the sparks fly, never more than in a comic brawl that’s hilariously retro — straight out of a Burt Reynolds comedy or John Wayne Western. Moments like this are downright giddy.

A nightclub encounter with gangsters reinforces the Korean ethnocentrism that the teachers are pushing. A gangster lectures kids to “Learn Korean or you will bring shame to your families.”
Where the movie rises above formula is in the “What we learned” part of the narrative. Their parents risked everything to be able to raise them in a new country. Native Koreans look down on them as “losers” for being the children of people “who couldn’t make it here.” Abuse became a part of that strain, perhaps driven by traditional Korean sexism being torn asunder in The West.

Among the kids, Kong is a stand-out as a Virginia Military Institute Keydet with an awful chip on his shoulder and a generations-old grudge against the Japanese. He makes the guy a hateful racist (B-Boys with a Run-DMC crush are hit with every African-American slur he can think of) drowning in his insecurities.

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With so many recycled scenes and cliches to get through, Lee let his comedy run on too long. But “Seoul Searching” is worth a look and a laugh even as it joins a long line of diaspora comedies (1999’s “ABCD” covered Indians raised in America) and dramas (Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow”) in studying the immigrant generation gap and culture shock that comes with Coming to America.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, with slapstick violence, teen drinking, smoking and sexual situations

Cast: Justin Chon, Jesica Van, Esteban Ahn, Rosalina LeighTeo YooIn-Pyo Cha
Credits: Written and directed by Benson Lee. A Wonder Vision release.

Running time: 1:49

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