Benson Lee knows how to throw a party. This much was made clear last week in New York when for the opening weekend of his latest film “Seoul Searching,” a ticket not only gained entry to the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, but the Circle Nightclub a couple blocks away, made up to resemble a prom bursting with ‘80s decadence as the cast were ushered in by men carrying bottles with sparklers flickering from the top and enough Simple Minds and Spandau Ballet to convince those in attendance that they’d stepped into a John Hughes movie.
“It’s been a lot of work,” Lee says, on the eve of another bash this week in Los Angeles when tickets to “Seoul Searching”’s run at the Ahrya Fine Arts come with the added invitation to an opening night fete at the Majestic Downtown on June 24th. Yet the writer/director has come to find that the extra effort has been rewarding, a victory lap of sorts for the film he’s been working since the turn of the century and thinking about for far longer.
Born in Toronto and raised in Philadelphia, Lee was steeped in American pop culture, perhaps a little too much to the taste of his parents who, like many other Koreans living abroad, sent him to South Korea to reconnect with his heritage at a state-sponsored summer camp. It is Lee’s own voice you can hear in the opening narration of “Seoul Searching” describing this peculiar program in which teens who only had the vaguest idea about their family history after their parents fled during the Korean War were reeducated, yet he seizes upon the comic potential of such a scenario to create a deeply ironic culture clash satire wherein the feisty teens who dress like Madonna and Run DMC are forced to confront the reality of where they come from.
Figuring out who you are is difficult enough during those formative years without the weight of cultural identity on top of personal identity, but Lee allows his characters to wear it lightly, centering “Seoul Searching” on a young punk (Justin Chon) who’s rechristened himself as Sid, after his favorite Sex Pistol, and the femme fatale (Jessika Van) who would be his Nancy if only she were interested in him, amidst a sea of those with the Kim and Park surnames but largely disconnected otherwise. By locating the struggle to find community that anyone can identify with while maintaining individuality, “Seoul Searching” finds itself right alongside the cherished films it was inspired by such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Sixteen Candles” while being something distinctly its own.
In the midst of spreading fun around the country, Lee spared a few minutes to talk about rising above the challenges of getting “Seoul Searching” made, creating a stylish film with limited resources and being surprised by what was inspired by his own story.
If you’ve been carrying this around for a while, why was this the right time to make it?
It wasn’t the right time. It was the only time. I wrote this after my first movie [“Miss Monday”] got into Sundance in 1999. I’m a big fan of teen dramas from the ‘80s and I wasn’t happy with the portrayal of Asians in those movies, so I thought there’s a void that I’d love to fulfill. The problem is that I couldn’t get the money because no one wanted to invest in a movie like this. It’s not cheap and it wasn’t one of those cheap American indie movies where I could shoot it in my backyard because it happens in Korea. I’d have to take the whole cast there. I couldn’t get financing from America and I couldn’t get financing from Korea because they weren’t sure who this movie was for. Finally, some Chinese investors came through and they liked the actors that were in it, so the next thing you know I was making a movie. It wasn’t that I waited. For 16 years, I really, really tried to make this movie.
This is based on your own experience, but was it then surreal to bring some of those American actors to Korea to see them interact with the culture, much like what happens in the film?
No, not really because a lot of them had lived in Korea, were living there or had been there many times, so it wasn’t like what they were experiencing on screen was a reflection of what they were experiencing by being there. What was more fascinating to me was seeing how they brought the characters to life. It was really hard for me to find a Korean-Mexican or a Korean-German. To see them bring these characters to life that were on page for 16 years – [seeing] Justin playing me and how he was manifesting the character based on all of our conversations [especially – was just mindblowing for me. It meant a lot.
What was the balance between what you wanted from the actors to bring versus the characters you had created? For instance, it seems like you couldn’t make up what Esteban Ahn was giving you as the scene-stealing Sergio.
It’s all very different because Esteban is a first-time actor. I chose him without evening knowing if he had acted before and I wasn’t surprised, but I work with a lot of non-actors and I like working on actors because my job is to make them feel comfortable being themselves. Esteban was the manifestation of Sergio and he was doing a vlog on Youtube and [when I saw it], I was like, “Oh my god, that’s Sergio.” I contacted him and I was like, “I don’t care if you’ve ever done a movie, I want to meet you.” He just so happened to be living in Korea, even though he’s from the Canary Islands in Spain, and when we met, I was like, “You can do this.” We rehearsed a lot together. I couldn’t be any prouder because he brought it. He was so committed. He learned. Acting school was our production for him. He got to work with great actors like Justin and more experienced actors like Cha In-Pyo, who played Mr. Kim, the teacher. Everybody was super supportive of each other.
Obviously, this is a comedy, so you exaggerate these different types, but was that strong adherence to some facet of American pop culture in effect taking the place of Korean heritage something you actually experienced?
When I met these people, since it was 1986, we were all very sheltered because we had no connection to the outside world except a phone with a cord. When I met these guys, I was like, “Oh my god, you’re Korean-German?” That scene in the beginning where [you meet] Klaus Kim or Sergio Kim, [it’s like] are you fucking serious? Then when you get to know them, the next mindblowing thing is that, “Oh my god, that guy is really Mexican and that guy’s really German.” It’s no longer about if you’re Korean - I see you as German and they saw me very much as American. What I learned from that experience is wow, there’s so many bicultural people.
Today, that’s even more the case. You’ll have something American, something German – the mother country, the origin country, and the adopted country and [those layers] are in and of itself an identity because I’m not fully 100 percent Korean nor am I fully 100 percent American, nor is Klaus or Sergio. We are an amalgamation, which sometimes doesn’t mix well or sometimes it does but that’s part of the exploration of our journey. I wanted to recognize that because Korean-Americans are very different then Korean-Germans in many ways, but we have these common themes – love, relationship with parents. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re from, those are important and I really wanted to show that there’s diversity within diversity.
Was it a challenge to figure out what the presence of the parents would be? They loom large, but rarely seen.
Yes, it’s like John Hughes’ movies. The parents are side characters, but these references of authority – the ones that don’t understand the [teens]. Really, what’s more important is how people feel about their relationship, so you don’t have to see the parent to understand where Sid is coming from in terms of his relationship with his father, like where Bender is coming from in “The Breakfast Club,” or any of those characters for that matter. We all can relate. There was a time when I had a version where we had the parents, but I was like, “What do you need them for?” They’ll come out in spirit through the most vulnerable moments of the characters.
The film has an amazing wall-to-wall soundtrack of classic ‘80s songs. With limited resources, did you actually consider what it would cost to license the songs before putting all them in the movie when they’re so precise?
No. Absolutely not. No director knows that because it’s just depressing. We definitely dealt with the music afterwards. If it wasn’t for my rock star music supervisor Rudy Chung at Hit the Ground Running, there’s no way we would have been able to score the type of music that we did. They’re huge #1 hits from the ‘80s and it took over a year to make it happen. Every filmmaker who considers working with real seminal pop music tracks should find a great music supervisor.
It’s one of those things that makes the film feel a lot bigger than it probably had any right to be. Another is how you’re able to use the full canvas you have in widescreen. How did that visual style come about?
I give a lot of credit to my [director of photography] Daniel Katz. Though we’re working in a very hi-def digital age with cameras, the last thing I wanted was a really crispy clean 4K image of something that takes place in the ‘80s. Daniel was able to score some anamorphic color lenses from Japan — there’s only maybe three sets that exist — that just gave us this beautiful look and texture and he really did a great job exploiting the space and — there’s a lot of space to fill in anamorphic. The art directors did an amazing job filling it, too.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
Every day was crazy, but I was just really proud of being able to achieve a life-long project. I hope I never go through it again. I’m so proud of what the actors were able to bring to the characters to produce such performances. If you took me back in time and showed me the movie that I made, I wouldn’t believe it. The quality is transcended everything I ever expected.