[REVIEW] Feed your inner Seoul with Benson Lee's award-winning film 'Seoul Searching'

Nicole Swayne, July 29, 2016, 9:34 a.m.

The 80s gave us Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and some of the best John Hughes classics. Fashion was also at its peak, making bold statements and representing a subculture that did not conform to the mainstream society. Fingerless gloves, leg warmers, studded and spiked armlets, and of course Members Only Jackets all became popular 1980s trends. Some might even say the 80s are coming back. However, people at this time were at times condemned for their creativity. 

Sitting on the couch, netflixing “The Breakfast Club” with a tub of vanilla ice cream sounds like a great night.  Although debuting in 1985, this comedy-drama remains relevant in the present day. John Hughes uniquely captures five students who, are whether the brains, the athlete, the baskecase, the princess, or the criminal, find ways to understand and accept each other. Hughes shows how adults in the world often tend to "see us [teenagers] as [they] want to see us—in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions” but we are much more than those stereotypes.  The movie is pretty much perfect - well almost. Still something stands out when watching these films; there are hardly any people of color. People of color rarely play a role as the love interest or the main character because they are usually seen as just a side dish, not too important to the plot. However, filmmaker Brandon Lee might be onto something with his new movie that includes a diverse cast and pays homage to 80s classics.

Recently re-released to select theatres, “Seoul Searching” is a Korean film that in some aspects resembles a modern day version of  “The Breakfast Club”. Set during the 1980s, this movie focuses on several teenagers, Gyopo as they are called, who are of Korean heritage, but were born outside of Korea. Due to large generation gaps, the teens in the film clash with parents frequently about different values. The meat of the story begins when these students are allowed to visit Seoul for their summer vacation as a part of a program funded by the Korean government. This program seeks to teach children “what it means to be Korean” after not living in Korea and being deprived of their rich cultural ties. It can be hard to define “being Korean” when that means different things to different people. Each character uniquely contributes something to the group and with their diverse, individual personalities, they are unstoppable.

Known for his roles in “21 & Over” and “The Twilight Saga”, actor Justin Chon plays the main character Sid Park in Brandon Lee’s “Seoul Searching”. Sid is a gothic, punk Californian teen who embodies the iconic “Criminal” Bender. He is often apprehended and criticized by the world around him, especially by his own personal Mr. Vernon... his teacher Mr. Kim. Mr. Kim appears as an antagonist, but when you learn his backstory, you can really sympathize with his character and understand how he came to be the way he is.  For Sid, Mr. Kim resembles a father figure just as Mr. Kim sees part of his son in Sid. Unlike “The Breakfast Club” they have a stronger intimacy. Also through these two characters, a lot can be learned about societal pressures in Korean culture and family dynamics in relationships between father and son.

Contrasting with Sid is his foil character Klaus Kim, a German born introvert who acts as the “Brains” of the operation just like Brian Johnson. As polar opposites, these two characters learn a lot from each other. Klaus learns to occasionally take risks and to not always play it safe, while Sid learns to come to friends for help and to allow himself to be vulnerable. Sid and Klaus both share a room with Mexican born, Sergio Kim who resembles a “Latin Lover” type of character.  Sergio adds some life to the room with his humor and partying ways. Even still, Sergio shares a common family life than that of “Athlete” Andy Clark. Having had an abusive father, Sergio channels his anger into his passion for karate.

Grace Park is a preacher’s daughter whose alter ego is 80s popstar “Princess” Madonna. Grace utilizes fashion for her own self-expression and tries to hide her true identity by wearing many scandalous outfits. By putting on this new persona, Grace feels she is more desired and well-liked by the other teenagers, but to the other characters, Grace only appears as cold and heartless. Still, Sid is one character who is  able to see through her act and understand the real her.  

Kris Schultz is a “Basket Case” adopted teenager, being raised by white parents, who has the least connection to her culture. Kris is asked to write her Korean name in calligraphy class, but tells her teacher that she cannot remember it. She confides in Klaus that she was not raised by her birth mother and feels like there has always been something missing in her life. Fortunately, Klaus speaks Korean and is able to help Kris find her birth mother. 

Benson Lee’s film brilliantly showcases 80s fashion trends and cultural ideals. Lee relates to the difficulties of growing up, especially in a town where there were not many Asian Americans in his high school. It is hard to assimilate into a culture that is expected of you when you stand out and are constantly reminded that you are living “in a bubble”, alienated from others around you. Like Lee, the Korean Gyopo teenagers face a major culture shock when they visit Seoul. Things that may have been the norm in the country they were born in are not as highly valued in Korean culture. These teens are lost and search for something to point them in the right direction; Sid to change his old ways, Klaus to put himself out of his comfort zone, Sergio to find his purpose, Grace to learn to be herself, and Kris to discover a lost part of herself. And they could not have done it without one another. Overall, “Seoul Searching” is a movie that many audiences can identify with, without having to be of Korean descent. Growing up is the time for making mistakes, trying new things, falling in love, and above all, finding yourself.

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