Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 17, 2016 2:27 am 
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Seriousness and play

Seoul Searching is an enjoyable if slightly uneven youth comedy about second generation Korean teens sent to Korea for the summer in the Eighties - this is 1986 - for a crash course in their ancestral language and culture. The program was started because parents were shocked at how much their offspring had drifted away from Korean language and ways. But it was dropped after only a few years because the kids just proved to be too unruly for the Korean government program to handle. The period and the age level allows the talented Korean-American writer-director Benson Lee, who summered memorably this way once himself, to shoot for John Hughes-style humor.

It's a welcome thought. It's hard not to be nostalgic for the style of youth picture Hughes initiated and excelled at. That's not possible, of course, for myriad reasons. We're just no longer living in the Eighties. This is clear from the foul language Hughes would never have allowed. The action might better fit into a TV series, like the summer trip to Russia episode of the first series of "Skins." Seoul Streaming is mainly a string of skits grouped in broad sections involving various characters - who, to be honest, though vivid, are not as rounded or memorable as the first series "Skins" ones. Second those Eighties casts were homogenous. These aren't. Still, Asian-American and other transplanted Asian's offsprings may be pleased to have a movie that represents their demographic. The Eighties music soundtrack by Lee and Steven M. Choe is great and so are Shirley Kurata's period costumes that show kids striving for various kinds of Eighties hipness.

The movie is about assimilation. These children of Korean parents raised abroad don't seem, or feel, Korean. Most of them don't even know the Korean language. The majority in the group is mostly American, having taken on various personas. Grace Park (Jessika Van) is a "Like a Virgin" era Madonna; the boy who's drawn to her is a surly, but stylish spiky-haired admirer of Sid Vicious who even calls himself Sid - Sid Park (Justin Chon), actually. Another, Mike Song (Albert Kong) is tough, macho, and in khaki and comes from a military school, and a couple others imagine themselves to be black rappers. There's also an Asian-black girl with darker skin and teased-out hair. There's Sue-Jin (Byul Kang), a girl who's into martial arts; two young girl twins. The filmmakers push the sub-stereotypes to the max, not always with maximum effect.

But what's interesting is that the real wake-up to what assimilation means comes through a scattering of arrivals to the program from other countries, namely Germany, Mexico, and England. And they, to the Korean-American kids, are the exotic ones. Klaus Kim (Teo Yoo) - that's right; he's Klaus - is smooth, elegant, and European, proud to be from "one of the most beautiful cities in Germany," Hamburg, planning a career in finance. He seems capable of giving lessons in behavior to any of the others; and he speaks Korean, which they can barely even understand. Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn) who's Mexican (though the actor, whose interpretation is broad, is from the Canary Islands), aims to give lessons in seduction to the other boys. He's a Latin Lover! Sara Han (Sue Son), prim and perfectly dressed in pleated skirt, from Wimbledon, is more concerned that her hometown's tennis primacy be recognized than that she's Asian.

The movie has some trouble assimilating a first half that's a loud, unruly comedy, sometimes with shaky links between scenes, with a second half that gets more serious and sentimental, focusing on the issues of a troubled, alcoholic local instructor Mr. Kim (In-Pyo Cha), leading to a surprising bonding between him and Sid. Later, the shy, sensitive Kris Schultz (Rosalina Leigh), raised by white American parents in New Jersey, seeks with help from the fluent Korean-speaker Klaus to be reunited with her birth mother (Ji-a Park, in a brief but heart-rending performance), with a sad, but touching sequence that sums up many estrangements and reunions. Most ironic, there is a melee between a group of summer students of Korean origin from Japan and the mostly American group, set off by the militaristic, macho Mike. In the end, it's all just role-playing, as demonstrated by the end-of-season costume ball. The sequences, though satisfying in various ways, make it seem too much like Benson Lee wants to say everything he knows about dual cultural experience in one movie.

Seoul Searching, 105 mins., a joint US-South Korea-China production, debuted Jan. 2015 at Sundance; also Seattle, Los Angeles festivals. US release 17 June 2016, NYC AMC Empire 25. In San Francisco, it comes to the Roxie Theater 15 July 2016.

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