In the 1980’s, the Korean government created a summer camp for foreign-raised Korean teens to learn about their heritage. Citing a lack of control over the campers, the program was cut after just a few years. Between Korean lessons, field trips, and camp shenanigans, the motley crew of campers would make lifelong memories and important self-discoveries. This is the story of the summer of their lives.
© Mondo Paradiso Films, 17.6.2018, Popoptiq
Justin Chon (Twilight, Dramaworld) leads an ensemble cast of misfits as resident punk and protagonist, Sid Park. An L.A. native, Sid is your typical American 80’s punk; dressed in all black, spikes galore, glued to his Walkman, angry at the world, and going nowhere fast. Fellow American (and mirror image) is Grace Park (Jessica Van), a promiscuous preacher’s daughter with a passion for Madonna and smack in the middle of her own rebellion. Not surprisingly the two are instantly attracted to each other.
Then there’s Klaus (Teo Yoo), a German-Korean hailing from Hamburg with a disdain for chaos and closet full of clothes fit for the finance career he has planned out for himself. Next is Kris (Rosalina Lee), a shy New Jersey native and Korean adoptee whose white adoptive parents hope the camp will connect her to her roots. Filling out the rest of the group is girl-crazy Mexican-Korean (yes, you read that right!), Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn), Martial arts master and fearful misandrist, Sue-jin (Byeol Kang), Korean-African-American, Jamie (Crystal Kay), Chow (Heejun Han), a rap-enthusiast from Queens, resident racist and redneck, Mike Song (Albert Kong) from Virginia, posh Brit Sara Han (Sue Son), and sheltered twins, Jackie and Judy Im, played by Nekhebet and Uatchet Juch.
© Mondo Paradiso Films, 17.6.2018, IMDb
The characters, if suffering from rigid stereotypes, are colorful, diverse, and most importantly, lovable. Both Chon and Van balance children yearning for affection (and the coping mechanism of masking it with a prickly exterior) perfectly, and Kang, Ahn, and Kong, are downright scene stealers. Yet, of the entire cast it is Yoo who really shines. His portrayal of a quiet professional who has played by the rules his whole life is delicate and feels honest. Watching Klaus shed his restrictive skin (and stereotype with it) take chances, and come into his own is a breath of fresh air.
Though the writing teetered on the edge of being painfully predictable, we enjoyed the unveiling of true intentions and feelings between Sid and Mr. Kim (In-pyo Cha), as well as the tangibly uncomfortable scene between Kris and her birth mother. We loved that the epic DMZ fieldtrip fight between the Japanese school group and the campers (set to iconic 80’s bop, “Hey Mickey”) was not only fun to watch, but was used to illustrate the tensions between the two countries (even if one group had previously never set foot in the country they were defending), nationality intersectionality, and bring the group closer together.
© Mondo Paradiso Films, 17.6.2018, IHP
Taking inspiration from 80’s teen pics, specifically The Breakfast Club, Seoul Searching is Lee’s love letter to John Hughes and a neon homage to the 80’s in general. The intro features the instantly recognizable lime green front of an old digital clock and the accompanying soundtrack is, of course, all 80’s hits with pop culture references peppering the dialogue. Promotional posters for the film even mimic The Breakfast Club’s own promotional photos, with the main characters posed as their Breakfast Club counterparts.
Though it can feel a bit lost in itself at times, Lee has succeeded in creating something spectacular: a film by, for, and featuring foreign-born Koreans. Though the film never feels obligatory, with Asians consistently underrepresented in media across the board, it was. Seoul Searching isn’t just a nostalgic, raunchy, coming-of-age romp through the 80’s, but a successful challenge to the western entertainment industry’s lack of Asian representation-and that is a tremendous triumph.
IMK Rating: 3/5
Where to watch: Netflix
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Are you a Justin Chon fan? Check out our review of Dramaworld, here!
Featured Image Source: © Mondo Paradiso Films, 17.6.2018, IMDb