Schema Reviews VAFF 2015: Seoul Searching

Posted by Chloë Lai & filed under Film Festival, VAFF.

Credit: sundance.org
Credit: sundance.org

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Seoul Searching

Dir. Benson Lee | Opening Night | USA | 2015 | 105 minutes

Showtimes:
Nov 5 7:00 pm | International Village

Big hair, bad attitudes, a hormone-infused search for a sense of belonging: Packed with all the classic ingredients for an 80s-style teen movie, plus a virtual kaleidoscope of internationally sourced Asian talent, Seoul Searching is a heartfelt, hilarious coming-of-age story that showcases the emotional fallout of cultural and generational identity confusion in first- and second-generation Asian immigrants.

Based on award-winning writer/director Benson Lee’s own experience in the South Korean government-sponsored summer camps for Korean teenagers raised abroad, the film follows its young ensemble cast as they drink, fall in love, sneak out to nightclubs and participate in West Side Story-style brawls in historical heritage sites.

They do end up discovering and appreciating their Korean roots, just not in the way their parents might have expected.

The characters are familiar: the rebel outcast, the pastor’s Madonna-obsessed daughter, the bigoted military guy and the “more-than-meets-the-eye” wallflower. The narrative arc treads the well-worn ground of love, freedom, forgiveness and domestic violence, yet the result is enormously irresistible.

With a kickass soundtrack including Madonna and The Clash setting the pace, the film is divided into chapters, marked by flickering neon letters: Amazonia, The Demilitarized Zone, The Reunion, Like a Prayer and The Costume Ball. The sections help keep track of the multiple storylines, including, but not limited to: the volatile tension between angry yet insightful punk Sid (Justin Chon) and the burnt-out teacher Mr. Kim (played by veteran South Korean actor In-Pyo Cha); shameless flirt Sergio’s quest to “pop some cherries”; defiant, hyper-sexualized Grace (MTV’s Jessika Van) and her quest for independence; quiet Kris’s search for her Korean birth parents, aided by the earnest Klaus (Teo Yoo).

Kris, played by Ontario-born newcomer Rosalina Leigh, and her birth mother, played with heartbreaking humanity by South Korean actress Ji-A Park, share some of the most riveting and emotionally compelling scenes in the film. Their first meeting takes place in a Korean BBQ restaurant, and when the door slides closed behind Kris and Klaus as they join her mother in the pastel-pink-themed cubicle, viewers get a sense of the subtleties of this culture, of the isolating weight of repression. Each woman speaks only her own language, and at first, the language barrier signals their fundamental inability to communicate. When they eventually realize that it is emotion, not individual words, that carries a message, the results are powerful.

Seoul Searching is also bursting with funny one-liners. Many of these arise from Sergio’s (YouTube personality Esteban Ahn) enthusiastic misuse of the English language, as when he first meets roommate Sid (Justin Chon), who’s rocking out in a one-man mosh pit, and greets him with, “Hello my friend who is playing with yourself!”

It’s such an entertaining film, what with vomit-flavoured make-out sessions and late-night run-ins with Korean gangsters, that the underlying message of the universality of love and suffering manages to slip in almost unseen. Sid and Mr. Kim realize that their individual family traumas are more similar than they could have expected, as do Sergio and Sue-Jin (Kang Byul). This discovery, and others like it, allows them to finally connect with themselves, each other and their parents’ homeland.

For anyone who wants to run the gamut of emotions from exhilaration to devastation to whatever that special feeling is when you watch teenagers hit each other over the head with handwoven baskets in the rain, Seoul Searching is the film to see.

About Chloë Lai

Chloë Lai
Chloë is a Vancouver-based writer who has lived and worked on several continents. She has degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing, because it seemed like the best way to emulate James Herriott without becoming a country vet.

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