Way back in the early aughts, director Justin Lin (of future The Fast and the Furious franchise fame) proved Asian-American actors (including John Cho and Sung Kang) could play more than side characters with a line or two in the background -- and that a film revolving around a group of Orange County Asian-American high schoolers could be about more than high-achieving students with their eyes set on the Ivy League prize.
Better Luck Tomorrow, about bright, bored teenagers spiraling down a path from petty to serious crime was tough, violent and totally great. Roger Ebert went to bat for it in a well-publicized outburst at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. MTV Films made it their first acquisition. Produced on an indie budget of $250,000, it grossed $3.8 million at the box office.
Bypassing the 13 years in which Better Luck Tomorrow became not a sign of the on-screen diversity to come, but a fondly-remembered fluke, and we arrive at Seoul Searching, filmmaker Benson Lee’s love letter to the John Hughes dramedies of his youth, replacing suburban Illinois with Seoul, South Korea.
While Hughes got a lot of things right about teenagerdom in the ’80s -- ardent emotions, lingo, kick ass tunes -- Lee always bristled at his idol’s treatment of Asian characters, epitomized by Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of “Long Duk Dong,” the clumsy, horny foreign exchange student from an unidentified Asian land. As a gleefully retroactive corrective, Seoul Searching depicts foreign exchange of a different kind: a camp where teenagers of Korean ancestry gather for a government-sponsored cultural heritage program. Think Birthright, but in 1986 Seoul.
To their benefit, the character types in Seoul Searching are a bit more complex than The Breakfast Club’s brain, beauty, jock, rebel and recluse. There’s a punk kid from Southern California, a fun-loving Mexican-Korean lothario, a sensitive German-Korean yuppie, a combative tomboy and three gold-chain-wearing rapper hopefuls, among others.
Fashionably retro, with a soundtrack that hits all the favorite notes, Seoul Searching is ostensibly about identifying “what it means to be Korean” for each of the camp’s participants, but it’s also a familiar tale of teenage adventure and attraction. Most of the pairings-off that materialize by the film’s close are telegraphed loud and clear in the opening introductions, but the swelling chords of Modern English’s “I Melt With You” still manage to make those scenes somewhat satisfying, despite their inevitability.
Beyond the cross-cultural lessons to be learned (one Korean-American character struggles to understand that there could Korean immigrants in other countries), Seoul Searching features multiple characters grappling with strained or nonexistent relationships to their immigrant parents. Distant or physically abusive fathers appear again and again in individual characters’ backstories, often serving as topics of mutual understanding for the teenagers’ budding romantic entanglements.
Bouncing haphazardly between moments of lighthearted rebellion and melodramatic confrontations, Seoul Searching is at its best with a storyline that emerges between aspiring yuppie Klaus and Kris, a Korean-American girl raised by adoptive white parents in Middle America. Klaus becomes her confidant and translator in Kris’ search for her birth mother, a reunion that provides not insignificant tugs on the ol’ heartstrings.
That opening reference to Better Luck Tomorrow doesn’t come out of thin air. Lee himself proclaims Seoul Searching is the first Asian-American film showing in U.S. theaters since Lin’s 2003 debut. As an inheritor of Lin’s legacy, Benson does expand understandings of the Asian experience to a global Korean diaspora, but he doesn’t have the same success with his craft. Seoul Searching is charming and heartfelt, but between sound-effect-laden cuts and hastily-resolved plot holes, more than Sixteen Candles, it resembles a much better version of the ensemble films currently taking our holidays by storm (see, but don’t see: Mother’s Day and Mothers and Daughters).
If Hollywood can find the market to release two movies associated with one of the calendar's lesser holidays (what's next, Flag Day?), we shouldn't have to wait another 13 years for a film that puts Asian characters front and center.
Seoul Searching opens Friday, July 15 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and more information, visit roxie.com