I want to start this review with a disclosure: the director of the new film Seoul Searching, Benson Lee, is a dear friend and I want very much for his movie to do well. But this is only one among many reasons I wish this film the very best. You see, Seoul Searching also happens to be good. Damn good. And I think you will agree if you let me convince you to go see it. It’s a funny, sweetly nostalgic and genuinely moving tribute to the John Hughes teen comedies of the 80s and is a fresh perspective on the Korean American experience (not to mention the Korean Mexican, Korean German and Korean British experience!).
While my initial impulse was to write this article in a standard review format, I’ve chosen to take an offbeat approach and write it in a list format. Since my objective is to convince whomever reads this to go see the movie, I felt that an easy-to-skim, bullet-pointed list would be a more effective means to that end.
Let’s get to those reasons, then.
1. Seoul Searching is a better John Hughes movie than John Hughes’ movies
Anyone who grew up in the 80s as a movie buff has to have bit of a soft spot for John Hughes. And no doubt his films still hold a powerfully nostalgic sway for many of us. With loving reverence, Seoul Searching pays homage to Hughes’ 80s teen comedies in both subtle and overt ways. It takes place mostly within a school à la The Breakfast Club. It’s got a musical number that reminds you of Ducky’s or Ferris’s lip-syncs in Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. It’s got an array of teenager archetypes (all of them horny, of course) getting into trouble and falling in and out of love at the drop of a hat. There are teary confessions that belie surface appearances. Bridges are both built and torn down. John Hughes would have been proud indeed.
The thing about John Hughes movies, though, is that not all of them have aged with equal grace. Films like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off still hold up relatively well, but have you tried rewatching Sixteen Candles lately? You may be shocked, as I was, with how much time and nostalgia can sugarcoat the hard reality of movies you liked as a kid.
But Seoul Searching manages to distill the best aspects of those 80s teen movies (warmth, innocence, humor, charm) while leaving out the less desirable dregs (racism, outdated gender attitudes, unconvincing character arcs). Essentially, it’s a John Hughes movie without the flaws of some of John Hughes’ movies, making it the perfect John Hughes movie, only with an all-Asian cast.
Do you even need any more reasons than that?
2. It puts Asian Americans on the map of the 80s
I realize this reason won’t be equally compelling to everyone. But even if you’re not Asian American, if you care about more diverse representation in the media then you should be able to empathize on some level.
As an awkward geek growing up in the 80s, movies, books, TV shows and comics were my life. I couldn’t get enough of them. My very sense of reality was indelibly colored by them. But there was just one small problem: there was never anyone in these works that reminded me of me. Even in the very rare instance when there was, he was undoubtedly a crude, deplorable caricature that made me feel ashamed of my heritage (Long Duk Dong is still hard to witness after all these years).
It may be difficult for those who haven’t experienced this to understand just how painful this can be for a kid desperately wishing he could be part of the world. I won’t go into autobiographical detail but the gist of it is that over time, there developed a nagging existential angst that eventually came to tyrannize my waking conscious. It was the feeling that I did not truly exist, that I did not matter. And while I eventually learned to stop looking to the media to validate my sense of self, I’ll always remember that pain of exclusion. It’s why I understand how much the lack of representation can affect young Americans, because I went through it myself.
This is why Seoul Searching will be a therapeutic experience for many Asian Americans, especially those who grew up in the 80s. It almost feels like the kind of retroactive rewriting (or “retconning”) of canon that’s so common nowadays, only what’s being retconned in this case is 80s film history. It’s like revisiting an old house that you never truly felt at home in and then uncovering lost heirlooms that trigger new feelings of connection and serve as irrefutable evidence that, yes, this was my home. Yes, I lived here once.
3. It will broaden Americans’ cultural awareness
Ratings for the 2016 Oscars sank to a near-record low, but it was the cultural low it sank to that I found far more concerning. Where does one even begin with the irony of Chris Rock harping on about Hollywood’s lack of diversity yet making a joke about Asians so stupid and unfunny it had me checking the calendar to see if we’d just retrogressed through time to a more ignorant era.
In our present day there really is no excuse for the staggering levels of cultural insensitivity that we still see from large segments of the American public. But since it isn’t likely that the level of multicultural awareness will magically improve on its own anytime soon, and since mainstream media isn’t likely to help much in this regard, it’s the independent media that can go a long ways towards expanding our awareness. And we, in turn, can help independent media by patronizing it (see reason #5 below).
Seoul Searching is an especially courageous work because even among Asian American film it doesn’t conform to mainstream expectations of what an Asian American story should be. Nothing against stories about the immigrant experience, but I was already tired of them by the time I graduated college (and that was almost twenty years ago). Such stories are still important, no doubt, but they are only a small fraction of the stories that have been lived and still need to be told.
4. You’ll learn about the Korean & Korean American/German/Mexican experience at the same time
Seoul Searching tells the story of a group of young Korean Americans sent to Seoul, Korea, to be part of a cultural immersion program and learn about their roots. Actually, it’s not just Korean Americans—it’s Korean British, Korean German and Korean Mexicans as well, and in this respect the film is also a rich tapestry of the Korean diaspora experience overall. So in a way Seoul Searching is both a Korean film as well as a Korean American/British/German/Mexican film and in the process of watching it you get to see just how complex the intertwining of culture and identity really is.
Benson and his team also deserve kudos for flawlessly replicating Seoul in the 80s, bright green taxis and all. I was there as a child visiting with my parents at the time and it was very, very different from the Seoul of today. For Benson to have simulated the look and feel of 80s Seoul on a very limited budget is quite remarkable.
5. We must support artists who tell the stories we want to see
Part of the reason for the dearth of movies like Seoul Searching is, of course, that they have less mass appeal than movies like Independence Day: Resurgence. And even when they do get made they get limited distribution, making people even less inclined to make the effort to go see them. This of course perpetuates the cycle of lack. It’s therefore up to people with the most vested interest—and this includes any member of any underrepresented group—to make the extra effort to patronize works that reflect the actual diversity of our society. And we should not look to Hollywood for this because we’ll be waiting a long time. Instead, we should support the artists out there like Benson Lee who work so hard and sacrifice so much to get movies like Seoul Searching made against great odds.
Back in 2014 I wrote an opinion piece defending the HBO show Girls’ whiteness while commentators from communities of color were calling for Lena Dunham to weave more diversity into it. What I wrote was that we shouldn’t pressure artists to create art that’s untrue to their own voices, especially in works that are obviously as personal as Girls is for Dunham. I don’t want token diversity designed to appease; I want authenticity. And if Lena Dunham’s personal world is relatively absent of people of color, I prefer that to be honestly reflected in a work that’s supposed to be about her authentic experience.
A better solution for those of us who want more diversity is to vigorously support artists who make works that reflect what we want to see instead of clamoring for Hollywood to catch up with society (which would be nice, don’t get me wrong, but I wouldn’t hold my breath).
Seoul Searching is such a movie made by such an artist. Here’s our chance to put our money where our mouths are.
6. It’s a refreshing break from the usual Hollywood fare
If you browse around this site you might notice the preponderance of superhero, sci-fi and fantasy-themed content. So it should come as no surprise that all of us at Pop Mythology love big budget fantasies like The Force Awakens and Captain America: Civil War as much as the next guy. But when every movie seeks to pummel your senses louder and harder than the one before it, sometimes a small film that brings you back down to earth is just what the doctor ordered.
Remember what simple, honest emotion realistically portrayed feels like? Seoul Searching has an emotional payoff that feels so honest, so real, it’s almost shocking in its contrast to the spectacle of mainstream Hollywood fare.
7. It’s got a terrific 80s soundtrack
Going back to the 80s theme, Seoul Searching has one the best soundtracks since John Hughes’ own Pretty in Pink. Okay, maybe not that far back, but it was good enough to make me at least think of Pretty in Pink which had one of the best soundtracks of all time (sorry, not up for argument). Boasting the likes of such era-defining artists like The Go-Go’s, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Tony Basil, O.M.D. and no less than Madonna, the music in this film will stir a nearly unbearable longing in the heart of any true child of the 80s.
Besides, who doesn’t like 80s music? C’mon.
8. It’s one the best films of 2016
Look, as I’ve already admitted, I love Hollywood movies. I loved Captain America: Civil War. I loved Deadpool. I even loved X-Men: Apocalypse (though I did not love Batman v. Superman). But I would still, in all sincerity, rank Seoul Searching above them all—not because the director is a friend, not because I’m being nice, but for the reasons I’ve just discussed above.
Although you’d have to make an effort to find them, there are plenty of indie Asian American films being made all the time. But they’re not always as good as Seoul Searching on as many levels. Some films accurately reflect the cultural nuances but they’re not very well made in the technical sense. Or they might be well made but there’s something missing emotionally. Or maybe they’ve got the emotional heart but are yet more retellings of the immigrant experience. Or maybe the acting’s just bad (no problem with that here, the cast—featuring Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Tae Yoo, Rosalina Leigh, Esteban Ahn, Byeol Kang and the Korean actor Cha In-Pyo—is brilliant).
Seoul Searching is an independent Asian American film that succeeds on all the right levels. It makes you laugh, wrings your heart, is technically well made, and is a truly unique and fresh take on the Asian American and Korean diaspora experience. Films like this don’t come along often but you can help ensure that someday they will. Join me in supporting this beautiful little film. Go see it. Tweet about it. Blog about it. Tell all your friends about it. Let’s show the industry that movies like this can and will pay off.