A group of rowdy teens struggle to understand where they come from in Benson Lee’s comedy-drama.
“I can’t believe they are our future.”
It’s tricky to come from a background you know little about. Second generation immigrants, children of divorce and adoptees commonly find themselves the product of an entire culture they know little or even nothing about. I’m half-Iranian, but have never had the opportunity to visit or learn the language. Some kids are too curious to let it go, and some never feel a connection to a country that could very well be on another planet. These are the ideas that Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching tackles (minus the ones about me).
Set in the mid-80s, Seoul Searching details the supposedly real shenanigans that occurred when a number of foreign-born Koreans attended a summer camp designed to help kids reconnect with their roots. The idea is well-intentioned, but considering the movie’s opening text that this was the last one (due to it being too wild) and the delinquents who get off the bus, there’s no doubt that many of them are less interested in their culture than they are getting laid. And boy are they a colourful range of eighties caricatures.
I guess if I had to pin down a main character it would be Sid (Justin Chon), who has trouble conforming to the camp’s somewhat strict rules, and often clashes with counsellor Mr Kim (In-pyo Cha). But his is not the only story: there’s good-hearted Klaus (Yoo Teo), who helps adoptee Kris (Rosalina Lee) find her biological mother and adjust to a culture she’s never experienced; goofball Sergio (Estebahn Ahn) who only wants to get laid; Madonna wannabe Grace (Jessika Van), whose tough exterior hides a troubled past.
I’ve touched upon this topic with the pseudo-documentary The Return, which deals with similar issues. But while The Return knew exactly what it wanted to be, Seoul Searching seems unsure whether it wants to present us with a raunchy 80s comedy, a heartfelt movie about teens bonding despite their differences, or a moving tribute to a country and people they never had a chance to experience properly. It tries to do so many things when just one of them would have made for a really good movie.
Seoul Searching is actually quite fun and charming when it puts in the effort. The cast is well-picked and despite the sheer number of them they all have distinct personalities and styles, even if they do lean a little into cliché. Some are more likeable than others, but they’re all pretty fleshed out considering how stretched thin everything is. There’s a good product in Seoul Searching and it’s working its hardest to show itself but more often than not the whole thing just sort of comes across half-finished and lacking in true depth. It struggles from having too many characters and not enough time dedicated to any of them. I can think of at least two (not even counting the unnecessary additions of the hip hop triplets) characters who vanish from the movie almost entirely once the first act ends.
And none of this would have been an issue if they all stuck together and shared one big narrative, but the movie labours under the weight of at least four separate a-stories which each have to have their three-act arc, resulting in a movie that’s both overstuffed and strikingly void of substance. I can’t help but think it would have worked considerably better on TV or as a Netflix ten-episode special. Ultimately my gripes aren’t enough to dissuade anyone from watching it: I did have fun with Seoul Searching, as it did have some funny setups and shenanigans and the eighties backdrop helps with that college comedy vibe. It does have a number of genuine moments of earnest emotion, and a fair few laughs but much like its main characters, it seems unable to find who or what it really is.
Verdict: Muddled and sorely lacking in focus, Seoul Searching is still a good time, thanks largely to a very likeable cast.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Tag Urself: I’d like to say Klaus, but let’s face it we’re all Sergios
Title cards: Very unnecessary
Seoul Searching (2015)
Director: Benson Lee
Writer: Benson Lee
Justin Chon – Sid Park
Jessika Van – Grace Park
Cha In-Pyo – Mr. Kim
Yoo Teo – Klaus Kim
Esteban Ahn – Sergio Kim
Rosalina Lee – Kris Schultz
Albert Kong – Mike Song
Han Heejun – Chow
Crystal Kay – Jamie
Nekhebet Kum Juch – Jackie Im
Uatchet Jin Juch – Judy Im
Sue Son – Sara Han
Choi Gwi-hwa – Mr. Chae
Choi Seong-guk – Gangster Song
David Lee McInnis – Sergeant Gallagher