Sundance Film Festival: Koreans just wanna have fun, but ‘Seoul Searching’ doesn’t always let them

seoul-searching-sundance-2015

They were a group of strangers meeting for the first time. A punker, a jarhead, a tomboy, a bad girl, a good girl. They had nothing in common, except each other. And that they were Korean.

I was getting definite “Breakfast Club” vibes off Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching,” a high-spirited but uneven comedy. It’s set in 1986, among a group of teenagers of Korean descent, now living overseas, who have returned to Seoul for a special summer camp. It’s based on a real camp that Lee attended; the idea was that the South Korean government feared second- and third-generation Koreans were losing touch with their heritage, and the camp was intended to reconnect them.

And the teens are all obvious ’80s types, from the girl who dresses just like Madonna to the trio of beat-boxing rappers. (Am I the one who has to make the Run-DMZ joke here? Fine, I will.) In a hilarious opening set to The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” the teens arrive at the airport one by one, each making a big entrance – the punker doing a solo mosh pit, the hip-hoppers laying down some mad rhymes. It’s all very silly and very funny, and the bright colors and well-curated ’80s soundtrack seems to lay the groundwork maybe not for great cinema, but a good time.

And for a while, it is — Lee has clearly watched his John Hughes movies, and has fun riffing on those tropes as the disparate teens party, argue, and start bonding with each other. But then the film takes a really ill-advised turn towards melodrama, as each character has their own weepy subplot to work through — one teen is looking for her birth mother, another deals with an attempted date rape, another with an abusive father. Actually, it seems every one of the teens has an abusive father — maybe its the fathers that need to be sent away for the summer.

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I get that Lee is trying to balance the comedy and the drama in the way Hughes could do so expertly, but it comes off very heavy-handed here. “Seoul Searching” regains some of its spirit later on — I bow to no man in my appreciation for a big climactic brawl set to Toni Basil’s “Mickey” — and the cast is appealing throughout. But I just wish Lee had borrowed a little less “Some Kind of Wonderful” and a little more “Weird Science.”

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