Seoul Searching (directed by Benson Lee) starts in black and white, old reels and footage of Korea as a narrator gives a quick historical background to give us the setting for the film. After a devastating war, many Koreans left the peninsula in search of a better life, bringing their young children to America and Europe. As so often happens in immigrant stories, the children inevitably experienced a distinct loss of heritage and understanding of Korean culture. In an attempt to mitigate this, the South Korean government implemented a program during the ’80s to bring children of immigrants to Korea for a summer camp to learn about their Korean heritage. This movie revolves around a set of these kids — Sid (Justin Chon), Klaus (Teo Yoo), Sergio (Esteban Ahn), Grace (Jessika Van), Kris (Rosalina Leigh) to name a few — going to this camp.
After the historical introduction, my gut instinct was to cringe. From the poster, you can tell this movie is meant to be to some extent a comedy with bright colors, flashy outfits and silly poses. But the movie as a whole relied heavily on stereotypes to create the basis for the characters — it was almost hard to watch Sergio’s stereotyped love for parties and women, Claus’s German orderliness or Sid’s ’80s American obsession with the punk rock. The outfits of the characters feel like costumes, the lines are predictable and we’re slammed with corny clichés of teenagers and cultures.
I thought that perhaps my reaction was because I went into the film thinking that it would be exploring the Korean immigrant story. As a Korean immigrant, that excited me. But the movie mostly did something else; though touching a bit on “being Korean” and “being an immigrant,” Seoul Searching was more of a feel-good bonding story of teens in summer camp filled with cheap laughs and silly scenarios. The extensive use of clichés and stereotypes were a throwback to ’80s film in general — an homage to John Hughes films. But the clichés made the Seoul Searching feel inauthentic. The stereotypes and clichés so defined the characters that it was hard see any real substance in them; in a way, it felt like I was watching caricatures of people.
And unfortunately, it was at the expense of other groups. What’s interesting about the stereotyping in Seoul Searching is that the use stereotypes are mostly reversed. Instead of falling onto the typical Asian stereotype Hollywood so loves, Seoul Searching has Asian actors playing characters that are stereotypes of Americans, Germans, Mexicans and so on. In that sense, the movie tried to construct diverse range of actual characters that had very different lives and experiences in the new countries they had to adjust to. But the gung-ho group of teens also detracted from the movie, making it go in too many different directions, which ultimately made the film seem more insubstantial.
What was great is that the movie had real Asian people playing Asian characters. In a time in which we’re still being inundated with whitewashing controversies and limited roles for non-white actors, it was refreshing to see an all-Asian cast playing new roles and types of characters. While the clichés and stereotypes of the characters overall didn’t appeal to me, I appreciated the diverse roles and that many of the actors had understandings of the stereotypes their characters portrayed (for example, Esteban Ahn who played Sergio Kim, a student from Mexico, was raised in Gran Canaria, Canary Islands of Spain; Teo Yoo who played Klaus Kim, a student from Germany, was born in Cologne, Germany).
Ultimately, the movie relied too heavily on overused tropes and had too many corny scenes to give a real sense of authenticity — the histrionics made the movie feel ridiculous at times. But it showed a diverse cast in new roles and in the in-between, I thought I saw glimpses of that story I wanted to expect. In small moments, sentiments that are universal for immigrants were expressed: the understanding of how hard it is to drop everything and start a new life, the very raw loss of culture and the nature of being Asian in different cultures.
Seoul Searching will be shown at Cornell Cinema on the evening of Monday, October 24.
Catherine Hwang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].