AAAFF 2015: “Seoul Searching:” fun, nostalgic, and hopeful

Warning: minor spoilers ahead

Nostalgic for the ‘80s? Love foreign films? Want to reminisce on teen fun and angst? Korean-American writer/director Benson Lee’s coming-of-age romantic comedy “Seoul Searching” is a must-watch for film buffs.

The 8th annual Austin Asian American Film Festival kicked off its opening night on Thursday, Nov. 12 with the screening of “Seoul Searching” and a K-pop party hosted by Mandoo Entertainment.

Review by ChinLin Pan

The film takes place in the summer of 1986 in Seoul, the capital of South Korea. At the time, the government held an annual summer camp for “gyopo,” or foreign-born Koreans, for the teenagers to come and learn about their heritage. High school students from all around the world arrive in Seoul and the teen chaos ensues from there. But, throughout the summer of rebellion, the teens create friendships, fall in love and learn more about their roots.

“Seoul Searching” is based on Lee’s personal experiences as a teenager when his parents sent him to the summer program. The film also pays tribute to John Hughes’ 1980’s dramedies. Lee wrote the script back in 1998, so it took him “16 goddamn years to make this labor of love,” he said in a YouTube video message to Austin Asian American Film Festival viewers.

"Seoul Searching" / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

“Seoul Searching” / Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

The film portrays an eclectic mix of diverse characters: anti-social punk Sid (played by Justin Chon), Madonna enthusiast Grace (played by Jessika Van), good boy Klaus (played by Teo Yoo), romantic Sergio (played by Esteban Ahn), ass-kicking tomboy Sue-Jin (played by Byul Kang), and adopted Kris (played by Rosalina Leigh). I loved the passionate portrayals each of these actors performed. My favorite was Ahn’s portrayal of Sergio; he made me laugh in pretty much every scene.

My favorite things about “Seoul Searching” was the focus on the diverse stories and family histories of the teenagers and their camp teacher, Mr. Kim (played by In-Pyo Cha). Seeing that as the teens break the rules, impress the opposite sex, and learn more about themselves in the process created a well-rounded film.

Jessika Van stars as Grace in "Seoul Searching" / Photo courtesy of asianfilmdallas.com

Jessika Van stars as Grace in “Seoul Searching” / Photo courtesy of asianfilmdallas.com

One story that stands out to me is the one of Kris where she seeks out her birth mother. With the help of Klaus to translate from Korean to English and vice versa, Kris finds her birth mother, but the reunion and the truth she learns just break my heart.

From left to right: Teo Yoo, Justin Chon, and Esteban Ahn star as Klaus, Sid, and Sergio in "Seoul Searching" / Photo courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

From left to right: Teo Yoo, Justin Chon, and Esteban Ahn star as Klaus, Sid, and Sergio in “Seoul Searching” / Photo courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival

Another story I loved was the bond among roommates Sid, Klaus, and Sergio. At one point in the film, Sid advises Sergio “to think with [his] head,” as he often flirts with other men’s girlfriends and gets his butt kicked. And Sid tells Klaus “to think with [his] dick” since he started spending time with Kris but hasn’t made a move.

With an awesome playlist of ‘80s music, a score by Woody Pak that pulls your heartstrings, and a multi-plot story about a group of teenagers learning about themselves and their heritage, “Seoul Searching” resonates fun, nostalgia, and hopefulness. I haven’t laughed so hard or cried this much watching a film in a long time. This will sound corny, but the film truly touched my heart, and also sheds light on cultural and generational differences.

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