Director Benson Lee’s film, Seoul Searching, is a semi-autobiographical story about a summer camp for the teenage children of Korea’s emigrants during the mid-eighties. Lee has a clear love for and understanding of the 80’s teen movies that inspired his film, and he packs Seoul Searching with all the debauchery, angst, and political incorrectness of its genre predecessors.
In the early 1980s, the Korean government created an outreach program meant to establish a cultural bond with gyopo (foreign born Korean teenagers). The government decided to foot the bill for summer camps (based in Korea) where gyopo would visit in order to establish cultural ties with their parent’s homeland. Seoul Searching begins with a motley crew of teenagers from around the globe stepping foot on Korean soil for the first time. Amongst the group of misfits are Sid (Justin Chon), a Billy Idol-esque bad boy, Grace (Jessika Van), a massive flirt that may have raided Madonna’s closet, Klaus (Teo Yoo), an uptight kid from Germany, and Sergio (Esteban Ahn) a wanna-be ladies man from Mexico. The Korean government ended the program after only a couple of years because they couldn’t reign in the teenager’s wild behavior. Seoul Searching provides an up-close look at all the defiant attitudes, binge drinking, and sex-fueled antics that forced Korean officials to shut the camps down.
Seoul Searching doesn’t have a main plot; instead the film feels more like it’s unspooling over a series of episodes. Thematically, the film deals with each teenager learning to accept their cultural identities, and Lee places them in both hilarious and somber situations that challenge who they think they. Klaus resents his parents for being working class immigrants, and he defines himself by fully assimilating into his German culture, while Sue-jin (Byul Kang), behaves like a hyper-aggressive tomboy in order to rebel against the submissive role that is expected of Korean women. As the film goes along, Lee shepherds each character down a path of self-discovery, allowing them to gain a better understanding of Korean culture, their parents, and themselves.
Although Seoul Searching begins with foul-mouthed gross-out humor on par with teen flicks like American Pie and Superbad, it quickly switches things up and tries to tell a moving story. While the film should be commended for trying to reach the audience on multiple levels, its abrupt shifts in tone feel like standing on the bridge of a ship that’s making its way through choppy waters. The film is at its best when it’s just letting its cast of charismatic teenagers interact, and the film’s shifts to heavier subject matter are too abrupt and happen too frequently. It’s disconcerting going from laughing at goofy 80’s clichés like boys sneaking into girls dorm rooms to jumping right into darker territory such as date rape and teen suicide.
The film plays up some very broad stereotypes; there is a trio of hip hop loving students whose Run–D.M.C. impersonation is only a few shades away from total black-face. The film defines Sid (the central character) more by his look than his personality; he totally looks the part of the wild-haired, leather jacket-wearing, chain-smoking bad boy, but he has the flattest personality in the film. It’s not entirely clear why the other kids in the camp even like him. He pouts his way through the movie, whining and yelling, not doing anything endearing until well into the film. Despite these hang-ups, Seoul Searching still works; credit the numerous tight performances from a very strong overall cast and Lee’s reverence for the material.
With its solid cast, spot-on throwback soundtrack, and valuable message to a cinematically under-served audience, Seoul Searching is a refreshing entry into the modern day teen dramedy genre. Even with the jarring shifts in tone, Lee is able to hit all the right emotional beats to have his audience walk away from Seoul Searching with big silly grins on their faces.