Seoul Searching is set in 1986 at a summer camp created for foreign-born Korean teens to get reacquainted with the culture of their ancestors. Kids from all over the world are flown in to learn of Korean traditions and history. The opening voiceover explains that the program, which was indeed an actual project undertaken by the government, was ultimately abandoned because the unruly youth were too much to handle. Their counselors and teachers could not keep the kids in check. There’s a lot of potential here for comedy in the cultural clash and drama in the generational divide. Unfortunately, Seoul Searching chooses to rely on tired tropes instead of showing us something–frankly, anything–new.
As the film opens we get a musical montage as each kid arrives at the airport in Seoul. We have a punk rocker, a Madonna wannabee, a class-conscious upper crust Brit, an Army asshole, and a trio of gold chain-rocking, tracksuit-sporting hip hop heads who burst into freestyle raps and call everyone “nigga”. Just because the characters are of Korean descent does not make them any less generic. This roll call scene is set to the familiar refrain of “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash. Five minutes later and we’re hearing the opening riff of the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun”. These musical choices and the dozen more that crop up are indicative of the laziness that permeates most every aspect of the production. Setting a party scene to the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat” is like writing a sentence comparing it to eating at McDonald’s on your only night in Paris. It’s safe, comforting, and pathetic.
Thanks to the film’s unimaginative writing, nearly every dramatic reveal is telegraphed long beforehand. In the aforementioned opening scene we see the punk rocker, Sid (<—- Exhibit A), stare down an aloof teacher none of the other counselors likes. If you were told that these two were going to routinely butt heads before reconciling over some common ground, would you be surprised? If so, welcome to your first movie. The dramatic climax between these two is so overwrought that it was the only time this viewer laughed in a film that is ostensibly a comedy.
But despite the drunken shenanigans and broad caricatures, Seoul Searching is not a comedy. About halfway through, the film pivots and begins unveiling the predictable pasts of its protagonists. The cumulative effect of these repetitive revelations is numbing at best, and narratively destructive at worst. The only dramatic thread that has any real weight is the one between a mother and a daughter. What helps separate this from the pack is that the two characters are the least generic of the bunch, and that director Benson Lee makes these sections self-contained, instead of flitting back and forth between the half dozen characters like he does through the rest of the film.
There are other elements that transcend the film’s fidelity to the tired John Hughes template. A scene of Grace, the Madonna clone, singing an a cappella version of “Like A Virgin” starts out as yet another cloying choice but becomes surprisingly intimate and revelatory the longer it runs. Too bad it didn’t go on for more than a verse and a chorus. Three minutes of unwavering eye contact between character and camera would have been exhilarating. The best performance comes from Teo Yoo who plays the kind and reliable Klaus. His character is the only one that easily moves between nightclub parties and tearful calls home. He feels, gasp, real.
(Seoul Searching plays at the Pacific Place 5/15 & 5/16 and at Lincoln Square 5/20)