Starring: Justin Chon, Jessika Van, Cha In-pyo
Director: Benson Lee
Running Time: 109 mins
Seoul Searching is a South Korean film about a group of foreign-born Korean teenagers who are sent to spend the summer at a camp in Seoul to learn about their heritage.
The strange thing about this film is, while it’s all in English, and focuses mostly on a group of Western teenagers, it’s still a distinctly South Korean movie. I’ll get into that in a second, however Seoul Searching remains a very entertaining and often even heartfelt comedy-drama that features a great coming-of-age story along with an intriguing series of cultural insights, even if it may be a little cheesy and melodramatic at times, not to mention the somewhat off portrayal of the Westerners at the centre of affairs.
Let’s start on that note, because it’s clear that, while the majority of the film features English dialogue, it’s definitely a movie made by and for South Koreans, something that makes for a few strange qualities when watching from a Western perspective.
For one, the dialogue is chock full of swear words. With the perception that Westerners, with their looser morals, swear a lot more (something that’s not necessarily untrue), pretty much every other line features a strong profanity, with f-bombs, c-bombs and even a good few n-words being tossed about like nobody’s business. Of course, when it’s dialogue that’s mainly intended for an audience watching with Korean subtitles, it doesn’t have the same power, but if you do speak Englsih and understand the dialogue, it can seem a little extreme.
What’s more is the overall portrayal of Westerners in general. Now, there’s nothing to worry about in terms of being offended when watching this film, as its central message is one of cultures coming together and understanding one another’s differences, however it’s rather funny to see how Westerners are generally perceived by another country so clearly.
The first scene alone is enough to show you the film’s view, and as the story goes on, almost all of the teenagers are shown as sex-crazed, testosterone-filled, foul-mouthed, loose-moralled and generally mischievous people, with all of their exploits in the film coming from this supposed mindset. Fortunately, the movie is self-aware of this, and ultimately offers enough character depth to make this no problem, but it’s just a rather strange and yet interesting element to an otherwise simpler movie.
Now, when I say simpler movie, I don’t mean that the film is lacking in depth, because its story does actually have some strong emotion and depth to it. For one, despite the slightly stereotypical and caricature-like portrayal of the Western teenagers early on, you eventually come round to understand them and care for them well thanks to some strong and convincing character development throughout.
What’s more is that the film’s central focus on culture clashes is an intriuging insight. As I’ve already said, you can see how Western culture is perceived by South Koreans, but there are also looks at how South Koreans themselves can do more to come together with each other and their overseas friends. There are times when that theme is a little cheesy, but in general it’s an uplifting and interesting one to see.
Along with the deeper themes, however, the rest of the film is a much more light-hearted and fun comedy. Brilliantly taking inspiration from 1980s teen movies (The Breakfast Club in particular), and featuring a great 80s soundtrack, the movie has a great nostalgic air to it, something that blends well with its simpler humour throughout. That side of the film may not be as impressive, and occasionally clashes with the more dramatic elements, but they still make for great laughs throughout, making for an overall enjoyable watch.
Finally, we need to look at the performances, which can be seen as the film’s weakest point. Although there’s nobody who’s particularly bad, I felt that the young cast here was very guilty of overacting, in line with the caricature-like portrayal of their characters. Some are better than others, and manage to tone down the stereotypical and overly boisterous personalities, but some do actually shout and scream their way through the movie, without managing to bring their characters back down to earth, something that’s both frustrating and a little offputting to see throughout.
Overall, however, I enjoyed Seoul Searching. It’s an intriguing and unique clash of cultures, and it makes for very interesting watching from a Western perspective. However, it’s also both a heartfelt drama and a cleverly nostalgic comedy, all of which come together to make a mighty entertaining watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.5.