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Sundance Film Review: ‘Seoul Searching’

A unique portrait of the Korean immigrant experience distinguishes writer-director Benson Lee's messy but endearing '80s-set comedy.

Cha In-pyo, Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Esteban Ahn, Kang Byul, Albert Kong, Rosalina Leigh, Teo Yoo, Nekhebet Juch, Uatchet Juch, Crystal Kay, Sue Son. (English, Korean, German dialogue)

If you can get past the wobbly execution and the gentle groaner of a title, “Seoul Searching” delivers a sweetly engaging tribute to classic John Hughes movies and a refreshing glimpse into the secret life of the Asian teenager. Inspired by Korean-American writer-director Benson Lee’s experiences at a 1986 summer camp in Seoul, where he and some 200 other kids spent a summer learning about their heritage, this “Bibimbap Breakfast Club” ricochets from hormonal hijinks to tear-soaked melodrama to inevitable romance in endearing but wildly uneven fashion. Fortunately, its heart is always in the right place even when the camera isn’t, and as a calling-card showcase for its very appealing cast — and an upbeat tribute to the awesomeness of the ’80s in general — it should find an enthusiastic niche audience in limited-theatrical and VOD release.

As one of the few films to put Asian youth culture front and center since “Better Luck Tomorrow” premiered at Sundance more than a decade ago, “Seoul Searching” certainly fills a void, though in subject, style and approach it could scarcely be more different from Justin Lin’s model-minority crime thriller. A rare U.S.-Korea-China indie co-production, Lee’s movie at once examines and embodies the complicated riddle of cultural identity: Beneath its boozy antics and largely predictable narrative developments, it offers warmly perceptive insights into how difficult it can be for so many first- and second-generation Asian immigrants to define themselves.

A brief prologue explains how the trauma of the Korean War initiated a massive immigration wave to all four corners of the globe, which in turn gave rise to government-sponsored summer camps in the ’80s, allowing foreign-raised Korean teenagers to reconnect with their roots. Most of the kids we see arriving at Seoul’s Gimpo Airport in 1986 (in an overly aggressive montage) hail from the States, like lead protagonist Sid Park (Justin Chon), a sullen L.A. misfit who couldn’t be less excited about the summer ahead, and the no-relation Grace Park (Jessica Van), a pastor’s daughter who always looks either coquettish or bored. There’s also Chow (Han Hee-jun), an obnoxiously loud rapper from Queens, and Kris Schultz (Rosalina Leigh), a shy, sensitive girl who was adopted as an infant by white parents from New Jersey.

Gratifyingly, the movie affords us an even broader look at the Korean diaspora. Sid winds up sharing a room with Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo), a quiet, dapper-looking kid from Hamburg, Germany, who aspires to a career in finance; and Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn), a broadly conceived “MexiKorean” goofball who’s eager to meet girls, even though cross-gender hangouts are forbidden after 8 p.m. curfew. Naturally, such rules are made to be broken, and on the simplest, crudest level, “Seoul Searching” functions as a lively comedy of teen rebellion, greased by all manner of bodily/alcoholic fluids — as when Sid and Grace challenge each other to a dorm-room drinking contest, followed by a hot-and-heavy sexual encounter that deflates even more quickly than it escalates. At another point, Sid nearly provokes a flareup of North-South hostilities during an otherwise routine field trip to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), to the chagrin of Mr. Kim (Cha In-pyo), the camp’s strict but not unreasonable leader.

Most of these episodes are more mildly amusing than boisterously funny, and they’re often undercut by the movie’s formal sloppiness: Shots and scenes don’t always seem to match up, and there’s a structural haphazardness that works against any sense of narrative rhythm. The thread that feels the least organically integrated is Sergio’s fiery flirtation with Sue-jin (Kang Byul), a tomboy and martial-arts enthusiast determined to fight back against what she perceives as the abusiveness and chauvinism of all Korean men. Elsewhere, the film’s enjoyably kitschy period trappings — particularly evident in the wall-to-wall ’80s-hits soundtrack and Shirley Kurata’s costumes — seem to be doing much of the heavy lifting, with Grace’s glammed-up performance of “Like a Virgin” (complete with backup singers) a particularly random if glitzily amusing example.

Coming off the exuberant breakdancing documentary “Planet B-Boy” (2007) and its lame Hollywood feature spinoff, “Battle of the Year” (2013), Lee doesn’t seem to possess the sharp comic instincts or the talent for shaping an ensemble that would allow his movie to really hit its stride. What he does have in spades, and what cements the Hughes connection, is sincerity — a genuine affection for his vulnerable young characters and a willingness to probe their emotional crises honestly. Unsurprisingly for a movie about people who grew up in a radically different culture from that of their parents, the generation gap looms especially large here, whether in the form of language barriers, emotional misunderstandings, or the impossible burden of expectations that family members so often saddle upon each other.

Lee isn’t afraid to crank up the melodrama at certain instances, as when Sid displaces his anger toward his unseen father onto Mr. Kim, or when Kris seek a tentative reunion with her birth mother (Ji-a Park in a brief, wrenching performance), a subplot with particular resonance in light of recent headlines. The jarring emotional power of these moments feels all the more ill served by the film’s busy efforts to wrap everything up as tidily as possible, doling out romantic endings for almost all his major characters. Should the filmmakers see fit to trim this 105-minute comedy down to a double-digit running time, the final scenes wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

A bit of a mess, but not an unsatisfying one, “Seoul Searching” also functions, almost by default, as a useful corrective to the chronic underrepresentation of Asians in the American film industry, buoyed by an ensemble whose diversity of faces and personalities makes Hollywood’s usual stereotyping seem even more coarsely reductive. Chon (“Revenge of the Green Dragons”) is well cast as the moody, volatile Sid, but the strongest impressions are arguably left by Leigh and the German-born Yoo as the sweetest, most sensitive of these restless youth, providing the steady emotional pulse in a movie that, even as it strains for laughs and catharsis, proves most satisfying when it simply dares to be thoughtful.

Sundance Film Review: 'Seoul Searching'

Reviewed at William Morris Endeavor screening room, Jan. 13, 2015. (In Sundance Film Festival — Premieres.) Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (U.S.-South Korea-China) A Bowery Hills Entertainment and Mondo Paradiso Films production. Produced by Benson Lee, Andrea Chung. Executive producers, Henry Shaw, Xiaopeng Wang, Sam Shui. Co-producers, Bridge “BJ” Noh, Sunah Kim.

Crew: Directed, written by Benson Lee. Camera (color), Daniel Katz; editors, Steven M. Choe, Lee; music, Woody Pak; art director, Suk-jin Jang; costume designer, Shirley Kurata; sound, Jong-kun Park; visual effects, Madmanpost; stunt coordinator, Young-sik Park; choreographer, Ellen Kim; line producer, Kyung-min Kim; assistant directors, Marco Kim, Su Kim.

With: Cha In-pyo, Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Esteban Ahn, Kang Byul, Albert Kong, Rosalina Leigh, Teo Yoo, Nekhebet Juch, Uatchet Juch, Crystal Kay, Sue Son. (English, Korean, German dialogue)

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