Charming picture captures the heart and Seoul of the best of John Hughes
“Don’t you forget about me,” Simple Minds implored us in John Hughes’s 1985 coming of age classic The Breakfast Club. Korean-American writer/director Benson Lee makes sure that doesn’t happen in his new 1986-set similar film Seoul Searching. Less a blatant rip off of the original and more of an unapologetic and utterly affectionate homage, Lee pays tribute to the Hughes films of his youth while bringing a unique, fresh, and charming perspective to the genre.
Based loosely on his own experiences as a teenager, Lee’s film transports us to Seoul, South Korea in the mid-80s, a time that saw the Korean government encouraging emigrant families to send their foreign-born Korean children to their ancestral home to learn about their heritage at government-run summer camps. Of course, teenagers raised abroad (many of whom didn’t even speak any Korean) had less interest in studying their culture, and more interest in meeting other teens from all over the world, partying, and generally embracing a parent-free few weeks of independence. Apparently the Korean government halted the program only a few years after it began because of rampant discipline problems and uncontrollable, unruly teens.
It’s a great premise, then, and one that of course echoes the Saturday I-Don’t-Want-to-be Here detention of The Breakfast Club, lending itself similarly to conflict, bonding, and discovery. Our main characters also are reminiscent of those in familiar ‘80s teen movies. There’s Sid (Justin Chon), the clear John Bender stand in, a California punk rocker who takes his name from Sid Vicious. Klaus (Teo Yoo), a straight shooter and aspiring business student from Hamburg fills in as the nerdy “good” kid, and Grace (Jessika Van), a New Jersey Madonna wanna-be rebelling against her pastor father, channels Molly Ringwald’s Claire. Sergio (Esteban Ahn), a confident ladies man from Mexico rounds out the lead trio of boys, and Kris (Rosalina Lee), a shy, adopted American girl is paired nicely with Klaus, who, as one of the few teens at camp fluent in Korean, helps Kris locate her biological mother.
The terrific Korean actor Cha In-Pyo stars as Mr. Kim, the main teacher and authority figure, who harbors a secret of his own, and whose clashes with Sid serve to underscore larger issues of the divide between older Koreans, many of whom left the country after the Korean War seeking stability and opportunity, and their foreign-born children, who don’t fully understand their parents’ sacrifices.
That underlying diaspora storyline and Kris’s adoption plot bring elements of melodrama to the picture not found in the typical ‘80s American teen movie, but that dimension works to the film’s benefit. Lee is able to maintain a blend of comedy and somewhat heavy drama that allows for more fully realized, fleshed out characters. Lee also doesn’t shy away from some of the politically incorrect and harsh aspects of ‘80s teen life; there are plenty of stereotypes, slurs, and worrisome, excessive drinking, but anyone who grew up in the era will appreciate that Lee isn’t just sugarcoating the period with rose-colored nostalgic glasses.
Indeed, the film is filled with achingly honest and tender moments that underscore Lee’s deep regard for the period, warts and all. A confrontation scene between Mr. Kim and Sid is a standout, as is a simple but meaningful phone call Klaus makes to his father back home in Germany. Yoo is riveting here, bringing layers of emotion and unsaid feelings about identity and belonging to the forefront in just a few sharp, poignant minutes.
With a soundtrack that includes Modern English, Madonna, the Go Gos, Toni Basil, Erasure, and OMD, Lee imbues his picture with so many Hughes-like dance and montage numbers that viewers can’t help but be charmed by his efforts. As a throw back to the films we grew up with, then, Lee has succeeded in reshaping that narrative for more than just white suburban American kids, and he’s done so in a way that is sweet without being cloying, funny without being silly, and dramatic without being overly soapy. That Lee can capture the energy and vibe of the pictures of his youth and repurpose them for a new generation and audience is a testament both to his storytelling and his skill. Don’t you forget about this one.
Seoul Searching opens today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. A Q&A with writer/director Benson Lee will follow both the 7:00pm screening tonight and the 6:45pm screening tomorrow.