Let’s stipulate that there are three general kinds of things that movies can do well (or do poorly). The most obvious, yet perhaps the most slippery, is execution – its formal elements or methods of construction can be creative and skillful. The second is meaning – all cinema, like all art, is a medium for the transmission of messages about society, culture, politics, economics, and philosophy. Those messages can be complex, engaging, and positive to various degrees. The last, and perhaps most neglected, is representation – it can offer time and space to populations, settings, and events that are under-served in the media ecology. The challenge in assessing a film is that these elements are not simply three components of a test which can be scored and summed – they are both conditional and interactive. Not all forms apply equally well to all meanings, and those forms can have a recursive relationship with those meanings.
Leni Reifenstahl was obviously a talented filmmaker who made creative and well-executed films, but in Susan Sontag’s famous argument, you cannot simply delineate between her form and her function; her very aesthetics were inherently, irredeemably fascist, and, by implication, any filmmaker who replicated her methods was likely making a fascist artwork, whether they consciously intended to or not.
This leads us – really – to Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching. Because Seoul Searching does one of those three things really well. In telling the story of teenagers of Korean descent raised and living outside Korea brought to South Korea in the 1980’s as part of a well-intended but not-quite-fully-baked plan by the government to do a sort-of Birthright-esque summer camp, Seoul Searching takes a population that is often sidelined, pigeonholed, or neglected in mainstream Western cinema and makes a film that not just shows their experiences and struggles, but it is fundamentally about them. The problem is that it does very little else in more than mediocre or formulaic fashion, and I can’t tell whether that makes it worse or better.
Seoul Searching, had it actually come out in the 1980’s, would’ve been revolutionary in the ways it portrays the experiences of second-generation East Asian immigrant youth who are trying to navigate complex questions of identity. It also would’ve felt like a second-rate knock-off of then-contemporary John Hughes, who was the master of telling a lively, heartwarming, and thoughtful coming-of-age stories in a distinctive way. But in telling a Hughesian story in a Hughesian way, is Lee trying to comment on those stories and the kinds of characters and narratives they marginalized (e.g. Long Duk Dong)? Or just adopt a vernacular and structure appropriate to the story he’s telling? How deliberate is it? The usual cues that might open that kind of dialogue are missing, and too much of the execution is flat.
Seoul Searching suffers in large part simply because it can’t level up. Way too much dialogue is on the nose, and too much comedy is missing that its target. Other than Esteban Ahn – whose charismatic and genuine performance deserves oodles of praise – few of the cast do any memorable work. The typecasting doesn’t help, but again, it’s never quite clear on how many levels the typecasting is supposed to be working, leaving the audience confused and frustrating. The music choice feels like an ‘80s hit collection played on shuffle; the plot offers few surprises. Seoul Searching is never bad, exactly. But the most that can be said about it is that it, hopefully, represents a step forward.