Film Review: Teenage Angst and Diasporic Identities in ‘Seoul Searching’5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
In 1986, a group of foreign-born Korean teenagers attend a summer camp in South Korea.
Director: Benson Lee
Cast: Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Cha In-Pyo, Teo Yoo, Sergio Kim
Country: South Korea, USA
Language: English, Korean, German
Runtime: 105 minutes
‘I’d like to know your personal thoughts on what it means to be Korean’, a teacher asks his class of teenagers in accented-English. The framed South Korean flag and a blackboard scribbled with Hangul form his backdrop. These are things most of his students — born either to Korean immigrants or who are immigrants themselves — are unused to.
It is a scene that forms the lynchpin to Seoul Searching (2015), which follows a group of rowdy teens of Korean descent, born and raised in the West or Americas, who travel to Seoul to learn about their cultural heritage at a 1986 summer camp. Directed by Korean-American filmmaker Benson Lee, this raunchy teen comedy has its own hidden depths, revealing a witty social commentary on the displacement of diaspora identities.
Seoul Searching is also part-tribute to ’80s Western pop culture. Think of its characters as satirical references to those in John Hughes’ Brat Pack movies, except jacked-up on sex and alcohol (I truly feared for their livers when they partied). In a smartly directed montage shot, the attendees of the summer camp strut out of Gimpo Airport arrivals gate as though on a fashion runway, each displaying the requisite clothing and traits of their ‘80s high school stereotype.
A la The Breakfast Club, there is Sid (Justin Chon), a leather jacket-clad rebel-punk teen with shades of John Bender, preppy British Sara Han (Sue Son) all ‘pretty in pink’, and a trio of hip-hopping wannabe rappers dripping with gold jewellery. But these are also largely stereotypes we associate with America, and the brashness of these teenagers likewise elicits the scandalised gasps of the conservative Koreans at the airport. Seoul Searching is then about how a coming-of-age film turns into a coming-home for these teens.
The culture shock goes both ways. The cultural immersion programmes Seoul Searching’s teens take part in — ranging from taekwondo to calligraphy — are all well and good, but barely scratch the surface of resolving the fears, disorientation, and loss of belonging that is the baggage of those living within the diaspora.
Much of the film’s narrative tension is derived from storylines which flesh out the disconnect between the older generation in Korea, and this younger generation of ‘whitewashed’ immigrant teens. Sid’s continual raging fights with Mr Kim (In-Pyo Cha), a teacher at the summer camp, are said to uncomfortably mirror those with his own father. What is shrewdly depicted is the stereotype of the stoic Asian father, unyielding — until the violent outbursts happen — and seemingly incapable of warmth toward his rebellious ‘Americanised’ son, who in turn deems his own self a failure in the eyes of his father.
Of note, Seoul Searching also tackles the tear-jerking storyline of Grace (Jessika Van), a Korean adoptee searching for a birth mother she only has faint memories of. Raised by white adoptive parents, Grace’s ‘conversations’ with her birth mother are frustratingly limited to translations by her romantic interest, sweetly awkward Korean-German Klaus (Teo Yoo), or hand gestures as she digs up the painful history of why her mother chose to give her up for adoption. All this, of course, takes place against the backdrop of the obligatory Korean BBQ scene with the satisfying sizzle of meat on the grill.
But it’s also Seoul Searching’s ensemble cast which proves to be its downfall, or rather director Benson Lee’s clunky handling of their numerous storylines. These run the gambit from sexual harassment of a drunken female, to a dramatic kung fu movie-style brawl in the rain between our troubled teens and a group of Japanese summer school campers, intended to unpack the deep-seated antagonisms of Korean-Japanese relations rooted in Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea.
Plotlines are resolved, as though only serving to mechanically tick-off checkboxes, and everything is magically kumbaya. The original question of the film — ‘what it means to be Korean’ — starts to get lost amid all this white noise. And so I stand by this maxim: avoid the politics if you can’t do them justice.
Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall has spoken of diaspora identities as ‘those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.’ And what Seoul Searching does quite ingeniously is show how the instability of diaspora identities finds intimate connections with teenagehood, with all its newfound wonders of teen angst, ramped-up hormones, and the constant societal demand to ‘find yourself’ even amidst all the confusion of these growing pains.
It is an age where everything is uncertain, and sometimes all you want to do is swoon at adorkable Klaus Kim in his dapper Hugo Boss suit. Take the time to savour, though, with the film’s gorgeous retro aesthetic of bright neon colours, musty yellow lighting, and the tint of red lipstick, harkens back nostalgically to the ‘80s.
Catch Seoul Searching now streaming on Netflix