By Mandy Day
At the San Diego Asian Film Festival, one of the United States’ premiere film festivals, there is a film for every taste. Many are independent films and some are mainstream theatrical releases in their home countries. There are horror movies, comedies, short films, Kung Fu classics, and documentaries made by San Diego area high school students. There is always that one film that was years, or decades, in the making. A film that was almost never made. This year’s film, Seoul Searching is based on the real life adventure of Korean American director Benson Lee. It touches on the experience of Korean children growing up abroad who travel back to the country of their parents for a few weeks each summer in the 1980’s.
The South Korean government sponsored these camps as a way to connect second generation Koreans abroad to the country of their ancestors. In reality, these camps were a disaster in managing the “wild ways” of the foreign born young people. As Pacific Arts Movement Executive Director Lee Ann Kim described it, many campers came home pregnant or suffering from sexually transmitted diseases causing the government to end the camps just a few years after they began. She had attended one of these camps in 1989 and met her future husband there.
Set in 1986, the year writer/director Lee traveled to South Korea, the film explores the lives of young people struggling to find their identity as the children of immigrants. Justin Chon (21 and up, Twilight), stars as Sid Park, a Sid Vicious wannabe from California, who spends much of the film rebelling against the rules of head teacher, Mr. Kim. Played by veteran Korean actor Cha In-Pyo, teacher Kim’s backstory unfolds as the plot takes a serious, and sometimes tragic, turn.
As the film progresses, the layers of emotional turmoil begin to unravel causing the behavior of the unruly teenagers to be understood. Like Sid, each character’s story gain depth in the latter half of the film. Each has their own backstory representative of experiences from the Korean adoptee to the straight-laced child of immigrants. Jessika Van plays Grace Park, the pastor’s daughter working hard to find herself. Her character is completely unlikable and dull at the start. From her cold attitude toward others to her choreographed rendition of Like A Virgin, Grace is the quintessential girl everyone loves to hate. She finally breaks free from that label in the concluding twenty minutes, evolving into a relatable young woman.
Van later describes how she related to Grace.
“My character tries really hard to put on a new persona. She’s really lost and looking for her own identity. So I think I really related to that when I was working on the character. Growing up, you kind of want to express yourself in all these ways, but you don’t know how to yet. It’s just, essentially, a discovery period.”
Rounding out the cast are Teo Yoo as German born, Klaus Kim; Rosalina Leigh as Korean adoptee, Kris; Albert Kong as military cadet, Mike Song; Byul Kang as feminist martial arts expert, Sue-Jin; and Esteban Ahn playing Mexican Korean, Sergio Kim.
By far playing the most entertaining character of the film, Ahn was discovered on YouTube after a painstaking search for a Latino Korean. The Korean Pop music producer and first time actor brilliantly portrayed the role of the lust fueled teenager, Sergio. Somewhat inspired by Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong, Sergio was empowered rather than an emasculated Asian man. Sergio’s personality was well-rounded and capable of emotionally connecting with the other characters unlike the horrendous caricature displayed in the John Hughes film. Ahn was in San Diego for the festival and was one of the most accessible and cordial guests for fans and festival attendees. The Spanish born Ahn, who grew up in the Canary Islands, now lives in South Korea and films videos for YouTube on his channel, Coreanoloco. He stated at the film’s first screening in San Diego that after his current album is complete, he plans to focus more on his budding acting career.
More miraculous than the film’s completion after sixteen years in the making, was the ability for an independent film to obtain the rights to some of the decade’s most popular songs. The opening sequence, where the Seoul Searching cast is introduced to viewers, features music by The Clash. Throughout the film, a karaoke worthy soundtrack nicely compliments the progression of the plot. Music includes a vast array of eighties music like Madonna, Erasure, and Spandau Ballet.
After premiering at the esteemed Sundance Film Festival and set for release in 40-50 U.S. cities early next year, Seoul Searching is emotionally raw with few slow segments. Children of immigrants have the ability to experience a film telling their stories, caught between the traditions of their parents and the culture of their family’s adopted country. The Asian American experience is rarely told so well in a feature length film. Seoul Searching should be on the watch list of films being released in 2016.