The Sundance press guide paints “Seoul Searching” as a loving tribute to ’80s pop culture and the films of John Hughes, and that affection is obvious. But the final product is far too flawed to do its inspiration justice.
It’s a painful misfire that wants to be the Korean “Breakfast Club,” but director Benson Lee’s tribute feels less like Australian Pink Floyd and more like a group of 16-year-olds jamming in a garage down the block.
“Seoul Searching” is built around a real-life concept. Back in the 1980s, Korean parents raising their children away from the homeland became concerned that the kids lacked the proper value of their native culture. So kids raised in the U.S., Germany, etc., were sent back to South Korea to participate in culture-intensive summer camps.
Being kids and being the ’80s, things didn’t always go as planned. Supposedly, “Seoul Searching” is the story of (or is at least inspired by) one of these summer catastrophes.
It’s a nice idea, but in spite of a few decent jokes and a killer soundtrack featuring The Clash and other ’80s rock icons, the sum total falls well short of its high hopes.
The cast is intended to be a diverse group of zany misfits but comes off like a bunch of two-dimensional stereotypes. Sid (Justin Chon) is the spiky-haired punk who idolizes The Sex Pistols. Grace (Jessika Van) is the rebellious preacher’s daughter who dresses like “Like A Virgin”-era Madonna. Three boys in jumpsuits and gold chains dress and speak like Run-DMC. There’s also the military kid, the tomboy and Sergio (Esteban Ahn), a Korean boy raised in Mexico who behaves like a sad south-of-the-border caricature.
The irony is that the ’80s were rife with this kind of stereotyping. But “Seoul Searching” wants to imitate it instead of laugh at it, and in 2015 it just feels out of place, if not offensive.
Throw in some awkward writing and mediocre acting, and you get a film that sent several dozen patrons to the exits a half-hour into its Sundance press and industry screening.
If you make it past the first act, “Seoul Searching” gets better, sort of.
The second half of the film tries to dig into the backgrounds of half a dozen of the kids (as well as one of the teachers) in a futile attempt to add some gravitas to the effort. But the dramatic tone switch feels very insincere, and each of the clunky resolutions results in another fade-to-black false ending that makes the film drag even more.
Finally, just when you think things are nearing the obligatory heartfelt finish line, “Seoul Searching” gives us an “Animal House”-style brawl between the Korean kids and another group of summer school kids from Japan. This of course leads to another ham-fisted message, and another dramatic fade to black.
Not all of John Hughes’ films were PG, family-friendly comedies, but the excessive R-rated profanity in “Seoul Searching” feels like it’s being done for show rather than for character authenticity. In better hands, “Seoul Searching” might have been a nice balance of ’80s nostalgia and sincere coming of age. Unfortunately, what we have here is a missed opportunity.
"Seoul Searching" is not rated but would draw an R for consistent profanity, as well as some sexual content.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.