Pictured above: Benson Lee, writer and director of independent feature film Seoul Searching. (Photo by Mark Edward Harris)
story by JAMES S. KIM
In the summer of 1986, Benson Lee was a 16-year-old teenager living in a suburb outside Philadelphia who frequently clashed with his parents over his attention to schoolwork and level of communication. Lee’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in the 1960s, felt their son’s distance stemmed from his disconnectedness from his cultural heritage.
“The rift between my parents and me dealt a lot with the fact that I didn’t understand the culture where they came from, and they had a hard time accepting the culture that they were living in,” says the filmmaker, best known for his 2007 breakout documentary Planet B-Boy, in an interview with KoreAm in mid-January at The Culver Hotel in Los Angeles. “They felt that, if I went to Korea, I would come closer to understanding them, but more importantly, understand what it meant to be Korean.”
In the 1980s, the Korean summer camp was a common rite of passage for many foreign-born teens of Korean heritage. These programs sponsored by the South Korean government offered instruction in the Korean language and culture and were popular among parents, but also a draw for high schoolers eager to get away from home and meet others their age. Although a teenage Lee was reluctant to go in 1986, his parents sent him anyway. He was glad they did.
“I was pleasantly surprised because I was surrounded by so many beautiful girls and I got to meet some really cool guys that became my roommates,” Lee recalls. “It turned out to be the best summer of our lives.”
This profound experience, which Lee says was “pivotal” in allowing him to meet other Korean Americans like himself and become reacquainted with the motherland, would motivate him, years later, to make a film based upon that summer. The idea first came to mind 16 years ago, when Lee left the Sundance Film Festival buoyed by the success of his first feature film, the drama-thriller Miss Monday. But because this story was so personal to Lee, and the timing had to be right, the film—Lee’s “passion project,” as he puts it—sat waiting as he worked on other projects over the years. Now, Seoul Searching, a coming-of-age film that pays homage to the ‘80s teen flicks of John Hughes, has finally come to fruition. The dramedy premiered at Sundance in late January to a warm reception and is set to open the Center for Asian American Media Film Festival, known as CAAMFest, in San Francisco on March 12.
“I constantly meet people, even to this day, who, when they learn about the movie, mention that they had gone on this [same] program. I think it had an impact on my generation,” says the 45-year-old Lee. “I never told [my parents] that I partied my face off with these guys from around the world, and in the process we learned something really incredible about ourselves. But we didn’t really realize that right after the program. We grew into that understanding.”
As Lee remembers it, his summer at the Korean camp offered plenty of opportunity to party, hang out and forge new relationships (in fact, the Korean government long ago stopped operating the program because of liability issues over unsupervised youth). It also gave him and his peers—some who came from Germany and Spain as well as the U.S.—the chance to discuss the issues they faced back home, including tough-love relationships with their fathers, or their split identity as teens straddling two different cultures.
“When I walked outside of my house, I was in America, but when I walked into my house, it was Korea,” Lee recalls of his youth. “That was very hard for me in a lot of ways because, sometimes, these two cultures can be quite polarized, and they are very different from each other. But when I went to Korea and realized that everybody else was going through the same thing, that helped me to understand it wasn’t just about my parents, it was about this duality I was living in.”
Seoul Searching features an ensemble cast of characters, including a punk-rebel based on Lee’s own 16-year-old self; a Madonna-worshipping vixen; a military school-attending bully; and a girl-crazy Korean Latino. Scored by the composer Woody Pak to an infectious ‘80s soundtrack featuring songs by OMD, The Clash and Spandau Ballet, the film is a tribute to the era, as it intersperses various storylines about young teenage love, father-son issues, domestic violence, adoption and being raised in a repressed household.
A few of the characters are based on people Lee actually met that summer in 1986, but the film isn’t really a personal memoir. Although Lee spoke with a number of his former campmates about how they perceived that summer, the film isn’t about documenting exactly what happened.
“I didn’t have to go to that degree. I would say, like half of it to 60 percent is true,” Lee says. “The other half is all about compacting these stories, developing these stories and making sure they work within the framework of the movie.”
Seoul Searching was shot over the course of seven weeks in the summer of 2014 in Chungyang, South Korea, where the crew managed to secure an empty school building as their offices and main set. Lee had assembled his own motley group of summer camp actors, and had the opportunity to play camp counselor to his cast.
“It really [felt] like family,” says Albert Kong, an L.A.-based actor who plays the military school bully. “The people on cast, they’re just all really funny guys and funny girls. Everyone was hustling, everyone knew what they were doing, what we were trying to make. Weather and cows aside, it was good.”
Just a few months beforehand, Lee, then living in Los Angeles, dropped nearly everything he owned, including his car, apartment and Blu-Ray entertainment system, to move to Seoul, carrying little else besides two suitcases, a bag with his laptop and camera, his phone and passport, to pour himself into the project. It was a risky move since Lee had no financing or investors, let alone a full cast, at the time. The end result, it would seem, was worth the sacrifice.
“This is probably the most personal project of mine so far,” Lee says, sipping coffee at The Culver as he spoke with KoreAm, the day after he wrapped up post-production on the film in Los Angeles. Reflecting on his camp experience as a teen, he adds, “We, at a very young age, realized that, wow, we’re never going to be really Korean, nor are we going to be really fully American. So being Korean American or Korean German or Korean Spanish is who we are. We have to embrace the best of both worlds and grapple with the worst of both.”
Over the course of his 17-year filmmaking career, Lee has made a name for himself as a writer-director with a deep independent streak. Born in Toronto but raised outside Philadelphia, Lee was first drawn to filmmaking while attending college in New York and, later, Hawaii. He was the first Korean American to debut a feature film at Sundance, with 1998’s Miss Monday, set in London, where he once lived. The film earned a Special Jury Prize for lead actress Andrea Hart, in what was her acting debut.
Although it was a year after that in which Lee wrote Seoul Searching, the project took an extended hiatus as Lee pursued other works. In 2007, he came out with Planet B-Boy, a dazzling film about b-boy crews from all over the world trying to enter the world’s largest international b-boy competition, the
“Battle of the Year.” With just a three-person production crew, Lee followed these groups around in 2005, filming several competitions in Korea, Japan, France and the U.S. B-Boy wasn’t just about the moves and athletic prowess of these dancers; it explored b-boying’s roots in urban street culture and plunged into the individual stories of the dancers and the struggles they faced.
“Those themes really resonate with me, because I [enjoy] bringing disparate people together, how they connect, and how they realize they have much more in common than we imagined,” Lee says.
Planet B-Boy premiered as an official selection at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival before showing at other acclaimed festivals and on HBO. It won Best Documentary Feature and the Audience Award at the 2007 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.
Lee’s sole experience working with a major studio spun out of that effort, when Sony Pictures and Screen Gems produced a 3D Hollywood adaptation of Planet B-Boy called Battle of the Year, starring Chris Brown and Josh Holloway, with Lee again directing. However, unlike the award-winning work that inspired it, the 2013 film bombed at the box office, earning just $13.7 million at the box office against a $20 million production budget.
“I absolutely have way more creative freedom as an independent filmmaker,” Lee acknowledges. “My goal is to figure out how something personal to me can actually be viable for a larger audience, but at the same time maintain its message and authenticity, style and all these things that make for really good entertainment.”
It seems Lee has again found that sweet spot with Seoul Searching.
Justin Chon portrays Sid Park in Seoul Searching.
One of the director’s earliest challenges was building an ensemble cast to portray second-generation Korean Americans born or largely raised outside Korea, such were his summer campmates in 1986.
“In the States, and the rest of the world, there aren’t very many Asian actors outside of Asia to choose from,” Lee explains. So to discover new talent, the writer-director turned to Facebook to conduct an open casting call, providing bits of the script so aspiring actors could record their audition videos. The amount of talent that emerged from this effort, Lee says, was “mind boggling.”
“I was shocked by the amount of talent that was out there,” Lee says. Take first-time actress Rosalina Leigh, who plays biracial adoptee Kris Schultz, who arrives in Seoul hopeful to find and reconnect with her birth mother. During casting, the 18-year-old Leigh, an aspiring actress from Toronto, submitted her tape and later took the bus down to New York to audition a key reunion scene.
“She did that scene with her mom, when she’s talking to her, and she doesn’t understand what she’s saying. She blew us away,” Lee recalls. “She was as good in the audition, face to face, as when she read that script.”
The net result of Lee’s unconventional audition process was a cast as diverse in experience as it was in background, with first-time actors joining more experienced ones like Justin Chon and the veteran South Korean actor Cha In-pyo. It helped that many of the cast members could relate to their characters and their struggles over identity.
“I was so excited about the film because I felt that it was something that was close to me, who I am, the stuff I dealt with growing up,” says Chon (21 & Over, The Twlight Saga), who plays insubordinate American punk Sid Park, who frequently clashes with stern camp director Mr. Kim, played by Cha.
“Here we are, with our liberties and sort of being just a lot more open having grown up in these first world countries, expressing our feelings and all that sh-t, and having a completely different experience growing up than our parents did.”
In the film, Sid’s nemesis and eventual love interest is Grace Park, the Madonna-worshipping, hyper-sexual pastor’s daughter from New Jersey played by Jessika Van (MTV’s Awkward, Paper Lotus, The Gambler). “This is her first chance outside of home, outside of church, where she can really let loose and create her own personality,” Van says of her character. “But it was really important to show she’s not just a tough girl act, a one-dimensional [person].”
Kong says growing up in the predominantly Caucasian suburb of Valencia, Calif., helped with his portrayal of bully Mike Song. “I hope I’m the opposite of my character,” he says, with a laugh. “What I was able to draw from my character was that sense of not belonging, the sense of constantly having to prove yourself because there were no other Asians. This was back during a time when people didn’t even know what Korea was.”
The characters of Klaus Kim, an earnest kid raised in Germany who aspires to succeed as a business executive one day, and Sergio Kim, an irrepressibly fun-spirited Korean from Mexico, were particularly important roles to cast since both are based on Lee’s actual roommates from that summer. Lee previously knew Teo Yoo, a classically trained actor originally from Cologne, Germany, who now lives in South Korea. As for Sergio, Lee hit the jackpot with Esteban Ahn, a music producer and YouTube personality from the Canary Islands who goes by the moniker “Sanchobeatz.”
“Originally, Sergio was Brazilian,” Lee explains, “but we couldn’t find one Korean Brazilian actor who was right for the role, so we opened our options to Spanish-speaking Koreans. I discovered [Ahn] on YouTube. I saw him and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s Sergio.’ He never acted before, but I convinced him that he could do it, and we rehearsed a bit, and he turned out to do a really great job.”
For the role of the camp director, a strict figure with a mysterious past, Lee needed a native Korean actor who spoke English well enough to portray both the authoritative and vulnerable sides to the teacher. Cha, a star in Korea, fit the bill perfectly. “His range is amazing,” Lee says, “and he actually became a very good friend of mine through this movie.”
From L to R: Justin Chon, Teo Yoo, Cha In-pyo
When Cha read the script, he recalled the issues his own Korean American friends faced at home while he was studying at Rutgers University about 25 years ago. “Looking at them not being able to communicate with their parents, I remember I felt compassion for my friends,” Cha tells KoreAm. As for working with such a diverse cast, he adds: “It’s always exciting to work with people from different backgrounds. When you are at the set to shoot the movie, there is no Korean style or American style. There is only one style, [the] director’s style. I think Benson did a good job to break the possible barrier from the cultural diversity.”
The amusing opening scene in Seoul Searching establishes who each of the characters are, a la the Brat Pack, as one by one, they file into the airport after their flights to Korea. It’s easy to judge the characters early on and label them as the “the American rebel,” “the temptress,” “the Latino womanizer” or “the uptight European,” but that’s how Lee sets it up before digging further into their identities.
“The moment you start watching the film, you see the Asian faces, and it’s like OK, you get it,” Lee says. “But the more you start following these characters as you get into their stories, the more you latch on to the characters’ personalities, and you realize these are themes not only relevant to the Asian community, they are relevant universally, especially the teen themes.”
But while the themes of rebellion, acceptance and teenage love are timeless, Lee points out the challenges of making an Asian American film. Luckily, timing was on his side, as the core funding for Seoul Searching was provided by investors in China.
Byul Kang as Sue-jin Kim, with Sergio Kim (Esteban Ahn).
“Right now, things that deal with race relations or the war in the Middle East, or the post-war in the Middle East, are very timely,” Lee says. “For my film, I think it helped a lot that Korea’s pop culture scene really got more popular worldwide. Before that, Korea was relatively unknown to most people.”
Lee sees his latest work, despite its location and cast, as universal. “It’s very challenging to get Asian American films, or Asian movies in English, made because a lot of people in the film business find it to be a very small market,” he says. “But that’s probably the main reason I felt this movie was worth making because I feel it absolutely transcends just the Asian American theme of the movie, and it has a place for a much broader audience.”
Critics seem to agree: A HollywoodChicago.com reviewer wrote that of all the films at Sundance, “none were as radiant, or as one-of-a-kind” as Seoul Searching, praising its “polarizing sense of humor” and “sincere cause to explore identity in a world where America is no longer the melting pot.” A Hollywood Reporter reviewer wrote that Lee “infuses the characters with abundant attitude and verve.”
And at Sundance, Seoul Searching generated buzz. The film, which premiered on Jan. 30, received standing ovations at each of its three screenings, but Lee says he got the most kick out of people coming up to him and saying how much they related to a certain character. Most of them weren’t even Korean, let alone Asian.
“We live in a very diverse country, but quite often the studio system doesn’t really reflect that in the types of movies they show,” says Lee, in a follow-up, post-Sundance interview from Seoul, where he still resides as he pursues his next project. “When you go to Sundance, you really get a sense of what is going on in the here and now. You get to meet directors who are from all walks of life and backgrounds who are really trying to tell the stories that are important to them and, in some cases, the groups that these stories represent.”
Lee says that it’s tough picking a favorite among his films. But what made Seoul Searching so meaningful, he says, was showing the world what a talented cast of Asian actors could do with a good story.
“They deserve to have more stories that allow them to avoid the stereotypes and clichés and get to be normal characters,” he says. “I feel a personal obligation as a filmmaker to be able to create these types of stories and really fight the good fight for the team.
“I think we went through a phase in the canon of Asian American films where we really dealt a lot with the struggle for identity and having to talk about that,” Lee adds. “But I feel we’ve passed that now, and the struggle now is to get our voice out there. Just telling a story, a great story.”
All images courtesy of Seoul Searching.