Reel Asian Review: Seoul Searching

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Seoul Searching since I first heard it would be playing at Sundance for a variety of reasons (which I’ll get into later) so when I heard it was going to be the Toronto closing film for Reel Asian, I was super happy. It meant that I’d finally get a chance to see it. And all my internal hype and excitement was not only met but exceeded by the sheer fun of the film. You know me, I love a film that not only keeps me laughing but also makes me cry and Seoul Searching did both. I wasn’t the only person that enjoyed the film as it not only got a standing ovation by the audience at the screening but it also won the CHCH Best Canadian Film or Video Award at Reel Asian. Congrats to Seoul Searching!

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian


Based on a true story of the director, Benson Lee’s experience at a special Korean government summer camp for foreign-born Korean teens. The camps were created so the teenagers could learn more about and hopefully, re-connect to their heritage. Sounds innocent enough but putting together a group of teens from around the world with raging hormones, little supervision and in a foreign country… and in the 1980s, you know something’s going to happen. Seoul Searching is a funny and poignant coming of age film set to a great 80’s soundtrack.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

My Thoughts

Okay, remember I said I really wanted to see Seoul Searching and was super excited that it was coming to Reel Asian? It was basically for three reasons. First, I’ve been following Esteban Ahn, or rather SanchoBeatz as I knew of him beforehand, for a few years on various social media sites and was intrigued to see him in a film. Second, I’ve seen every film John Hughes directed (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is my fav) and most of the ones he wrote, so I was fascinated to see a modern-day film inspired by his fabulous 80’s films. Finally, I’ve always been partial to 80’s music (said as I’m listening to Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Clash and The Cult) so I knew I was going to love the soundtrack, especially after seeing the trailer.

Thankfully, Seoul Searching didn’t disappoint.

I loved the broad look at the Korean diaspora and the authenticity of the actors who played them. And on that note, don’t forget to check out my interview with Rosalina Leigh, the Korean-Canadian who plays Kris Sholtz tomorrow (Nov. 18th, I’ll add the link then). Having a German speaking gyopo (교포, foreign-born person of Korean decent) play the German Korean, Klaus played by Teo Yoo, and a Spanish speaking gyopo play the Mexican Korean, Sergio played by Esteban Ahn, helped the audience connect with the film and made it just that much more clear that it was based on a true story.

Sure there were moments that seemed a little over-the-top or contrived – like Sid, played by Justin Chon, and Grace’s, played by Jessika Van, entrance to Gimpo Airport – but the storylines and acting quickly fleshed out the characters and made them a little more than the stereotypes one commonly sees in 80’s films. And while I’ll talk a bit more about the characters in a bit, it was interesting to see a modern take on an 80’s style film, especially as someone who has always loved 80’s films. The homage to Hughes films was obvious – and stated by the director during the Q&A.

But the characters, while a bit of 80’s stereotypes, were an interesting mix and they weren’t the normal Asian stereotypes. Too often we see Asian characters in films to be caricatures or stereotypes, and thankfully, that was entirely absent here. Sure, the characters were stereotypes – the punk, the pastor’s daughter, the army brat, the rich girl, etc. – but they were 80’s stereotypes not Asian ones which was in keeping with the premise and inspiration of the film. Plus, despite being stereotypes, most of the characters were likable, especially Kris, Klaus, and Sid. Sergio was simply hilarious!

But what happened in the film, you ask? After arriving in an often dramatic manner, the teens are whisked from Gimpo airport to the summer camp and segregated to different floors – boys on one, girls on another. Of course, the first thing they did was have a party… in one of the girl’s rooms. A drinking contest ensues and then a sexual encounter between Sid and Grace goes oh, so wrong to hilarious effect. And that’s just the start of the hi-jinks.

While for the most part, Seoul Searching is a fairly lighthearted comedy, there are a few moments of melodrama that will have you reaching for tissues, namely the soliloquy Kris gives her birth mother (*tears*) and the scene between Sid and Mr. Kim, played by Cha In-Pyo (차인표). Speaking of Kris, I was really impressed by Rosalina Leigh’s acting. I thought that she, along with Teo Yoo had the strongest performances.

The film was not without some issues and the one that bothered me the most was the occasional odd camera angles. If someone could explain to me why the camera was trained on the guys thighs during a conversation they had in their room, I’d love to hear it. And like any film with so many characters, some weren’t fleshed out so well which makes me curious to see the longer director’s cut.

Image courtesy of Reel Asian
Image courtesy of Reel Asian

Final Thoughts

Despite some minor issues I had with the film, I thoroughly enjoyed watching it. I laughed, I cried, I had a great time. If you want a lighthearted comedy that will leave you smile despite having cried a bit, especially if you’re a fan of 80’s films/John Hughes films, then Seoul Searching is a film you won’t want to miss. Did you see Seoul Searching? What did you think of it?

Congratulations to Seoul Searching for winning the CHCH Best Canadian Film or Video Award at Reel Asian!

Check out Seoul Seaching on Facebook  or on Twitter to stay up-to-date on screenings.

Cindy Zimmer

Live life to the fullest everyday - this is a the philosophy I try to live by and it's taken me on many adventures. I write about Korean culture from a non-Korean perspective as the editor/founder of ATK Magazine and I'm the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Toronto Korean Film Festival (TKFF). Previously, I ran a Korean-English language exchange group (in Toronto) for 3 years to stay connected to my three years living in Korea as an English teacher. I love music, film, food and sports and write about 3 of the 4.

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