Seoul Searching Soars: Tears, Laughter and Love
Benson Lee says in 1986, he wanted to go to the Jersey Shore, but his parents sent him to Seoul instead, to attend a “heritage camp” for Koreans from around the world to learn about Korean culture. “My parents never knew what happened that summer,” he said to laughter and cheers in the packed Castro Theater last night. Then he addressed his parents, seated in the audience a few rows away. Don’t worry. “It all worked out.”
I’ll say. Not only did Lee become the Audience Award winning director of SFIAAFF 2008’s Planet B-Boy, but he gestated the memories of that eventful and pivotal summer for over 20 years and finally gave birth to Seoul Searching, which earned an enthusiastic, rousing, roof-raising standing ovation last night from our predominantly Asian American audience as it did from primarily white audiences at Sundance a couple of months ago. This movie has crossover hit written all over it.
Lee’s film is extraordinary, potentially a game-changer for Asian American film, and sure to stand the test of time along with such cherished films as Saving Face and Better Luck Tomorrow. It’s the kind of film that makes me want to take Asian America by the lapels and say “SEE THIS MOVIE!” If only our 18 million-member community would be as loyal to our own creators as we seem to be to The Game of Thrones and Marvel franchises (well, OK, we got Greg Pak on that team too), I could envision a new day for Asian American film and Asian American stories. In our culture, being a community seems to mean being a bankable community, and while we’ve made inroads on television, especially this year with Fresh Off The Boat, we seem to lack the cohesion of the African American community, well known to have the backs of their artists at the box office.
Get ready—we need an opening night blitz for Seoul Searching, whenever it’s released. If you’re on Facebook, “like” it now. Follow Seoul Searching on Twitter. Find them on Instagram. Get all their deets on Tumblr. And somebody please start an email newsletter for people like me who’ve gotten fed up with Social Media and have deactivated. (Yes, I’m still Asian American.) I remember hanging up movie posters all around SF with Greg Pak (for Robot Stories) and Eric Byler (for Charlotte Sometimes). Seoul Searching, I am your Superfan. Let’s take it to the streets.
How appropriate that San Francisco Supervisor Jane Kim came bearing a city proclamation for the festival. (Assemblyman David Chiu came as well, with a proclamation from Sacramento.) Kim is San Francisco’s first Korean American Supervisor, recently elected to her second term. Jane has a long history with CAAMFest—I remember her volunteering over a decade ago. “Be nice to your volunteers—they may one day be your supervisors!” she said last night. (Personally, I think it should be a statutory requirement to volunteer at CAAMFest before holding elected office. Yay volunteers!) Jane was one of the first people I met when I moved back to San Francisco in 2002, and she wrapped me in a cocoon of warmth and inspiration-by-example, connecting me to the arts and political communities that she was helping to build. She made me the butterfly (Nabi-Ravi) that I am. So maybe I can be a little Korean American by proxy now!
Benson’s film made us all feel Korean American last night. How he managed to put together so many themes and heavy material, and yet carry it all with a light touch, humor and overarching warmth of spirit—well, I actually started thinking “Shakespearean” halfway through. Let’s count:
1. The Korean War
2. The divided Koreas
3. The Korean diaspora around the world
4. Japan-Korea conflicts
5. Korean American/Asian American teenager identity angst
6. Male-female relations
7. Abusive dads, and dads who feel guilty and are trying to do better. (Add this movie to the Korean Dad’s 12-step program.)
8. Misogyny, sexual assault and domestic violence
9. Asian American Male and Female identities
12. Intergenerational trauma
13. Asian American Anger (you can read more about this important topic in my e-book, only 99 cents and all proceeds to domestic violence nonprofits)
16. Biracial Korean Americans
17. Korean American Adoptee searching for her birth mother
18. Reunion, and love
You need to study up if you want to be Korean American, kids. There are a few doctoral dissertations that are going to reference this film, mark my words.
The ensemble cast, with veteran Cha In-Pyo and featuring Justin Chon (also director/writer of this year’s Man Up), Jessica Van, Esteban Ahn, Teo Yoo, Rosalina Leigh, Albert Kong, Sue Son, and American Idol heartthrob Heejun Han was incredible to watch. This was Esteban Ahn’s first acting gig (he was discovered on Youtube)—but his Sergio was a standout. Chon played Sid, a version of Benson Lee in 1986, and easily proved again he has the chops for the Big Screen, as did all the actors. Writing, direction, costumes, cinematography—and MUSIC!—were spot on, from the “Seoul Train” airport arrival scene to the final kisses of the protagonists. And while some familiar tropes of Korean American identity were on display, the characters playfully let their hair down in the penultimate costume ball, letting us know with a wink that identity is always our choice, and a creative act.
The silver screen could have been a poultice for our wounds last night. Through tears and shouts and body blows, we still find a way to laugh, and ways to love. The one thing I learned early about Korean Americans is that they know separation. And they know that separation only means that you have to come together. And stay together.
Unlike many years, almost the whole audience stayed for the entire Q&A. We’d spent too much time apart; we had to linger with each other, just a little longer. I told the security guard trying to get us out of the Asian Art Museum at midnight that he had the hardest job of the evening. He nodded, wearily. Well, that’s what reunions are like.
CAAMFest has been the original social app for me and a lot of other Asian Americans for over 30 years. Let’s hit the like button. Share yourself in a theater seat this week. Come together. See you soon!
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, and his e-book on Asian American Anger. More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.