Saturday, January 24, 2015

Sundance ’15: Seoul Searching

Suppose they threw a cultural camp and a 1980s teen comedy broke out instead. Evidently, it happened quite regularly. Not so surprisingly, the sponsoring Korean government was not too amused—hence the program for children of the Korean diaspora was eventually discontinued. However, the camp will have one big horny, heartfelt last hurrah in Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Prepare to get your eighties on. They are the children of Korean immigrants in America, Germany, England, and Mexico, who have assimilated more completely than their parents. In many cases, they do not even speak Korean. They have been packed off to reconnect with their Korean heritage, but they are really just there to party. Grace Park, the New Jersey pastor’s daughter, has modeled her style on Madonna. Sid Park has adopted Sid Vicious as his idol. These two might be perfect for each other, but it will take them a while to overcome a really rough start.

S. Park will bunk with Sergio, the aspiring Latin lover, and the ever so German Klaus Lee. The latter is decidedly reserved, but he will come out of his shell a little when he helps American adoptee Kris Schultz track down her biological mother. Meanwhile, military academy cadet Mike Lee wages an open war with three kids who want to be the next Run DMC. Yet, the stern Mr. Kim only seems to want to bust Sid Park’s chops.

Searching is based on writer-director Lee’s fondly remembered 1980s summer at Korea’s cultural summer camp—and you can really feel the nostalgia. Honestly, if all the Clash, Go-Gos, Erasure, and Violent Femmes tunes do not bring the decade flooding back for you, you just weren’t around back then. In terms of tone, it is four parts John Hughes and one part American Pie, but the underlying themes of generational culture clashes and the need for roots gives it greater bittersweet substance.

The entire cast is ridiculously charismatic, even when selling the grossest make-out session ever and plenty of manipulative melodrama involving Schultz and her birth-mother. Frankly, it seems like Justin Chon and Jessika Van are way due to breakout as major stars (he was terrific in the short film Jin, but might be better known for the Twilight franchise, while she made a strong impression in indie fare like Bang, Bang). They really have great chemistry in their punked out, material girl Moonlighting-esque sequences. However, Korean actress Byul Kang sort of steals the third act out from under everyone as the taekwondo tomboy Sue-jin.

Even if you weren’t at the Korean government sponsored summer camps, Lee and his cast will make you fondly remember something from your teen years. He juggles at least a dozen well defined characters and two or three times as many mood shifts. Yet, he holds the overstuffed film together and makes it work quite well. Slightly naughty but wholly endearing, Seoul Searching is recommended rather highly for all kids of the 1980s when it screens again next Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Sunday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.