To Live and Write in LA

LA Film Fest: ‘Seoul Searching’ – an Homage to John Hughes and the 1980s

(Originally published on

The LA Film Festival, during its June 10-18 run, chose to make Seoul Searching one of its Gala Presentations.  After the red carpet arrivals, the film was introduced by its director-screenwriter Benson Lee and had its LA debut in Regal Cinemas’ Premier House.  The entire event and the film itself gave that evening at the festival an old-time Hollywood feel.

posterThe Premier House, although part of the LA LIVE Stadium 14, does not have a dinky multiplex screen. It’s big. I was reminded of being taken to the movies by my parents to see blockbusters like Ben Huror The Ten Commandments.

Seoul Searching takes viewers on a nostalgia trip, too. Its theme, its style, and its presentation are all retro in a good way. Prior to the screening, the audience did a stadium-style wave for the director. That’s getting into the 80s!

Seoul Searching is funny and will touch you emotionally, too.

The Theme

Director Lee explained that after the Korean War, the devastation of that country led to many Koreans seeking a better way of life abroad. By the 1980s those emigres had teenage kids who knew little about Korean culture. For several years summer schools were held in Korea to enculturate the teenage diaspora. Kids came from many countries, including the U.S., England, Germany, and Latin America. After a few summers the camps were cancelled because the schools couldn’t handle the crazy kids.  Lee was one of them.

Jessika Van in ‘Seoul Searching’ looks like a bad girl, but not really.

Jessika Van in ‘Seoul Searching’ looks like a bad girl, but not really.

In 1995 he wrote the script for Seoul Searching.  It’s a story about kids who are all different stereotypes. They are forced to spend time together and end up pouring their hearts out to one another. Oh, wait, that’s The Breakfast Club.

The Style

Seoul Searching is an homage to the work of John Hughes and other directors of 1980’s teen angst films. As a good homage should, it pays tribute to the style and takes it further.  At SXSW earlier this year I had the opportunity to see the remastered version of The Breakfast Club. It was fresh in my mind and I think Lee did John Hughes proud.

Seoul Searching has a great ensemble cast. It took Lee a year to do the casting. He looked for young actors who embody the roles they were to play. He wanted them not to act as much as be themselves.

Some of his choices were established actors such as leads Justin Chon (Detention of the Dead, The Twilight Saga) and Jessika Van (Awkward, The Gambler). Others had a variety of backgrounds. Heejun Han was an American Idol performer.  Esteban Ahn is an Internet star.

One of the film’s female stars, Rosalina Leigh, had no film experience at all. She did an amazing job, giving an emotionally compelling performance.  Seoul Searching was her first film, but, if she wants an acting career, many more will follow.

Lee followed his gut and it worked. When the film ended, the audience in Premier House gave it a standing ovation.

The Presentation

Bold vibrant colors: Lee explained that his team spent a lot of time getting the look and the colors right. As Simon and Garfunkel pointed out, “Kodachrome, they give us those nice bright colors….Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” No Kodachrome for Benson Lee, but the film looked beautiful.

Justin Chon from Seoul Searching

Justin Chon from Seoul Searching

Loud 1980’s music: The score is a hit parade of 80’s classics. Without giving anything away, I can share that my favorite musical moment was when a fight scene was accompanied by Toni Basil’s “Hey, Mickey.” The beat was just right for the beating.

Where Can I See It?

Lee explained that during the last several decades only two Korean films have found box office success in the U.S.:  Joy Luck Club (1993) and Better Luck Tomorrow (2002).  His ambition is to see that Seoul Searching makes it three.

My favorite Korean film is Let Me Out, but it never made it big.

Lee is avoiding going to Video on Demand (VOD) for distribution. He said that he felt that was the same as DVD, and believed this film should be seen in a theater. The audience applauded in agreement.  Lee will explore screening the film in various cities so that “…each showing is a celebration.”

To stay current with plans for future screenings, follow the Seoul Searching Facebook page. The trailer is below.

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