A rebel, a beauty, a flirt, a gentleman, an adoptee, and a tomboy arrive at summer camp in 1986 and bare their souls. Benson Lee’s newest feature film, Seoul Searching, opens with a series of caricatures in tribute to the patron saint of high school comedies, John Hughes. And in many ways it is vintage Hughes—from its charming neon title headers to its 80s pop soundtrack to its poignant, if not overly sentimental, culminating moments.
But instead of white suburban kids, Lee’s film follows a group of foreign-born Korean teenagers, and they’re tearing down stereotypes built by Hughes’s very own Long Duk Dong, whose comically thick accent and “no wanky my yanky” in the 1984 classic Sixteen Candles haunted a generation of Asian teenagers. Hughes was notable for delving deeply into the anxieties of teenagers, understanding that “when you’re sixteen, you’re probably more serious than you’ll ever be again.” He left out Long, whose comedic beating was used to elevate the gravitas of the rest of the (white) characters’ problems. Thirty years later, we have Seoul Searching, and Long is no longer the butt of jokes. On the whole, however, it’s a film that feels authentically Hughes—even when it shouldn’t be.
Based off Lee’s own experience at a real-life camp as a teen, it’s the mid-80s, and these unruly high school students have arrived in the outskirts of Seoul to attend a government-run summer camp designed to connect children of immigrants to their roots. Cramped three to a room with only a sleeping bag to their name, tensions quickly run high and friendships bloom. They’re all Korean, but the similarities stop there: these kids are from Germany, Mexico, England, and various cities across the United States. On the American side, we have the angry and brooding Sid (Justin Chon), who spikes his hair and chain-smokes cigarettes. Grace Park (Jessika Van) is a hardcore Madonna wannabe and pastor’s daughter gone rogue, her penchant for studs only surmounted by her love for liquor. Hailing from Mexico, Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn) is hilarious and sympathetic, a relentless flirt who’s comfortable in drag. Then there’s the shy German gentleman Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo), whose status as a committed boyfriend makes him the least salacious of the teenagers—and the most desirable. Supervising the students is famous private tutor-turned-camp counselor Mr. Kim (In-Pyo Cha), who must educate the teens on everything from calligraphy to martial arts while also coping with his own past. They all converge at Gimpo International Airport, each of them introduced in an exaggerated montage set to the tune of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Lee’s wide lens works its magic here, fusing each of these young people with their specific tropes. It’s fun, funny, and over-the-top, a fitting start to this raucous romp of a film.
The film features an eclectic cast, made possible by Lee’s unique casting process. Veteran actors Chon (Twilight, 21 & Over) and Cha (Crossing, Big Thing) deliver powerful performances as the warring Sid and Mr. Kim. Given the lack of visible Asian actors in Hollywood, however, Lee found many of his stars on Facebook—attracting newcomers Albert Kong, Rosalina Leigh, and Esteban Ahn, who impress as Mike Song, a sexist military man from Texas; Kris Schultz, a soft-spoken adoptee from Ohio; and the “MexiKorean” teen Sergio, respectively. The film also features J-pop star Crystal Kay and American Idol alumnus Heejun Han, who plays the head of a group of rappers who provide a light-hearted foil to the intense hyper-masculine antics of Kong’s Mike Song.
Seoul Searching is the latest rarity in a sparse pool of visible Asian-American media dedicated to telling Asian-American stories. It comes off the heels of ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat’s successful second season and freshman comedy Dr. Ken, and it’s a notable contribution to a teen genre that has previously only been visited by a few gems, most notably Justin Lin’s 2002 high school crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow. These examples are of but a few. According to USC’s February study on diversity in entertainment, at least half or more of all films and TV shows fail to portray one speaking or named Asian or Asian-American character on screen. Asians, who make up 5% of the US population, played just 1% of leading roles in Hollywood. More troublingly, in a season fraught with white actors cast as Asian characters (Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi in next year’s Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One—a character from a village in the Himalayas—in 2016’s Doctor Strange), it is refreshing to see Asian actors reclaiming Asian roles and telling authentic Asian stories—for the most part without the heavy hand that “immigrant issues” are often talked about on screen.
The film is most notable in presenting teens who are varying “degrees” of Korean; some, such as Mike, are familiar with his people’s history of being colonized, while others, such as the adopted Kris, don’t know the culture at all. Sid doesn’t speak a word of Korean and refuses to learn. Klaus speaks Korean fluently, but doesn’t speak it at home because he wants to improve his parents’ German. Although the kids’ relationships with their roots color their experiences at camp, the film’s anecdotes focus mostly on their sexual exploits, partying, and wrenching heart-to-hearts, which are at turns related to their Korean backgrounds, but oftentimes are not.
They’re all on their own journey, and unlike The Breakfast Club’s Richard Vernon, there is no main enemy or objective that unites these teenagers. Instead, Seoul Searching plays like a charming, albeit choppy, series of vignettes—like a summer at camp, Parent Trap-style. But instead of fencing or pranking, they’re taking taekwondo lessons and fighting with Japanese students at the North and South Korean border.
But more recognizable adolescent moments also abound, suffusing Seoul Searching with a light, distinctly Hughesian playfulness. There’s a late-night drink-off between Sid and Grace. The teens debate who is and isn’t a virgin, with Sid defensively barking that “of course” he isn’t. The film’s penultimate scene is a prom-style costume party, Spandau Ballet’s “True” cooing in the background. A teary-eyed car chase, complete with slow-mo, closes out the movie.
These Korean teens create their own world so naturally in spaces traditionally claimed by white people that one wonders why it took so long for a movie like Seoul Searching to make it to the silver screen.
Lee does veer into preachy territory at times, leaving the tough job of explaining Koreanness to Mr. Kim. When a fight breaks out between the teens and the group of visiting Japanese students, Mr. Kim lines up the kids and scolds them for allowing the hostility between two nations affect their interpersonal relationships. What was a mud-caked, all-out brawl quickly fizzles into a series of peaceful handshakes. While it’s nice to see this rare part of history illuminated on-screen, Lee’s “love thy neighbor” lesson is all too literally communicated.
Seoul Searching offers a good dose of lighthearted anecdotes and heavier, somber moments, but the film is jarring in its attempt to slap a Hughesian ending onto the characters’ darker anxieties. Suejin Song (Byul Kang), stubborn tomboy, hates Korean men for their history of violent chauvinism. Grace struggles with an oppressive religious family. Then there’s Kris Schultz, the adoptee whose search for her birth mother has been praised by critics as “the best John Hughes-like quality of Lee’s film.” But although Kris’s storyline is given a good amount of screen time, Hughes’s gift-wrapped melodrama seems ill-suited for a feat so difficult and emotionally fraught. With Klaus’s help, she finds her birth mother with one phone call, and within the day they’re eating dinner together. Kris and her birth mother rapidly dive from excitement to bitterness to a too-easy forgiveness. This is probably just to say that Kris deserves her own movie. In the end, for all the characters, it’s all roses—Suejin’s worries and history of being abused dispelled by Sergio’s unthreatening temperament, Grace’s hard veneer melted by a moment of sympathy from Sid. It is in these graver moments that the upbeat Hughes formula doesn’t feel quite right.
But while the audience can attribute the saccharine happy endings of Seoul Searching to an understandable desire to remain faithful to a formula, there are other remnants of Hughes in the film that are not so sweet. Lee demonstrates a familiar myopia when it comes to his female characters, and along with the 80s music and dress comes a sexism better left in movies of years past. Seoul Searching offers important commentary on racial, ethnic, and national difference—commentary that puts a progressive spin on the genre—but in the arena of gender and sex the film falls woefully short.
In our beginning montage, we’re introduced to a few of the girls literally from behind, the camera positioned to show us their rear ends before their faces—not the last time the film feels uncomfortably tailored to the male gaze. Heteronormative standards dominate, and by the end of the film the once-androgynous Suejin wears a pink shirt and lands a surprise kiss on Sergio. The scene means to mimic The Breakfast Club, by giving our token “man-hater” a makeover and pairing her with an unlikely male lead, but pink looks as fitting on Suejin as the blouse did on brooding loner Allison Reynolds: that is, not at all.
A scene of attempted sexual assault offers a culminating lesson that smacks disturbingly of the “boys will be boys” mentality that has tainted teen comedies of years past (including Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, where our “hero” Jake lets nerdy Ted drive his girlfriend home—implying that they’ll have sex—joking that she’s so drunk she “won’t know the difference”). After Sid and Grace have a falling out, Mike invites Grace into his room, then forces himself on top of her before Sid shows up and kicks him in the face. Mike never apologizes to Grace and Grace never confronts him; instead, at the end Mike apologizes to Sid, telling him that, growing up the only Asian kid at a military school, he “[has] to be this way,” that is, he “has to” forcibly assert his masculinity—a non sequitur explanation that seems to satisfy Sid, who nods and pats him on the back, all would-be rape forgiven.
Meanwhile, Grace’s agency is removed entirely, her feelings about the offense eclipsed by her affection for Sid after his moment of “heroism.” Grace is a character with incredible potential for nuance, but regrettably, she ends up developing in direct reaction to Sid. When she seduces Sid, she’s sexy. When she challenges Sid to drink, she’s tough. When she finally gives Sid a kiss on the cheek, she’s soft and womanly. The audience does not ever get to witness her transformation beyond him. Even Jessika Van’s expertly vulnerable acting can’t save Grace from a story steeped in a romantic relationship with a male character.
So while Seoul Searching reclaims Long Duk Dong, it, too, fails to fully personify Asian women. One could argue that it isn’t Lee’s job to rectify every 80s-rom-com wrong, but I was disappointed that in his commitment to a Hughesian aesthetic he left out only some of its uglier aspects. And just as Ted gets his golden girl at the end of Sixteen Candles, so too do the boys of Seoul Searching each get theirs.
Still, as a child of Asian immigrants myself, it was wonderful to see a part of my story brought to life in such a vivid way. The waterworks started early, as Lee’s opening narration about the post-Korean War diaspora reminded me of my own parents’ hopes and struggles in Chicago in the 1980s. Klaus’s third-act phone call home to his father, wherein he thanks them for their sacrifices, is subtle and poignant; it’s especially moving because he transitions from speaking German to Korean, the language they know best. Sid and Mr. Kim embody the differences between an immigrant generation and their children, and their heated debates about how to show love reveal heartbreaking truths about both of their pasts.
At the root of it all, the film depicts Korean kids simply bickering, drinking, and having fun.Seeing is a critical part of normalizing, and though it seems like a rudimentary expectation, it’s important for American audiences to see Korean-Americans simply living their lives. Even I, an Asian person, was taken aback seeing Koreans of different nationalities speak in different accents and engage with each other as strangers. I had never thought about the concept of a Korean-Mexican before I watched this film. I would argue that, despite its flaws, it is necessary viewing for American audiences.
These Korean teens are bad, rude, and (mostly) real. They care about what it means to be Korean, but they also care about booze, and sex, and their sweethearts back home. Most importantly, they’re the stars of their own story, instead of somebody’s sidekick or comic relief. Asian-American teenagers are much more Sid than they are Long Duk Dong. Let’s hope that future films in this vein allow Grace Park to break more fully out of her caricature, too.