The Toronto-born child of Korean parents who left their homeland in the 1960s returns to Sundance after 1998 selection Miss Monday with a unique spin on the teen movie genre based on his own experiences.
Seoul Searching takes place in the South Korean capital in 1986 as a cosmopolitan gaggle of high school students born to expatriate Korean parents arrive for summer camp to reconnect with their roots.
Lee and Andrea Chung produced and Seoul Searching stars Justin Chon, Jessika Van, In-Pyo Cha, Teo Yoo, Esteban Ahn and Byul Kang.
Lee talks to Jeremy Kay about his homage to John Hughes and his own journey to self-discovery.
WME Global and Preferred Content represent world rights. The film screens for press and industry on January 23 followed by the public world premiere in Premieres on January 30.
What was the inspiration for the story?
It’s based on a personal experience of mine that took place in 1986. My parents were from Seoul and left Korea a decade after the war and ended up in Canada in the 60s. They decided to send me to Korea for the summer against my own will. They were concerned that being raised in the States I had no connection with my heritage, which is basically true. I got into a lot of trouble at school and they felt a lot of that was my not being connected to who I am, which is also true.
When I got there I was pleasantly surprised by how many attractive girls I was surrounded by. I was in the international room and had a room-mate from Germany and one from the Philippines and one from France. We were all so different from one another culturally. I knew nothing about what was going on in the world because we didn’t have the internet and were sheltered compared to kids today. These guys really brought their culture with them and it was pretty mind-opening to me. At the same time we had a great time meeting these girls.
So what would be a way to describe Seoul Searching?
It’s a teen movie where kids want to have fun but it’s also a coming-of-age film where kids learn about themselves. I wanted to capture that experience. It was the best summer of my life. I wanted to celebrate that now that I am in a mid-life crisis!
Which character is based on you?
I was Sid, the LA guy.
Do you keep in touch with your summer camp pals?
The German guy turned out to be a lifelong friend of mine. He’s really excited to see it.
The John Hughes vibe is strong in the movie
The teen comedy is a very special genre and played a very special part in my youth before I got into cinema. I really like taking a genre and flipping it and adding my touch. I tried to do something very traditional in the vein of The Breakfast Club. What I loved about Fast Times At Ridgemont High was [screenwriter] Cameron Crowe put himself back in high school at the time [while writing the script.] That film was really about teen pregnancy and I loved how they dealt with an adult theme in a teen context. That’s the beauty of youth and I tried to do the same with my film. I really respect teenagers. A great example of that is the guy from Germany [in Seoul Searching], who’s upwardly mobile and meets this girl who rocks his world and makes him appreciate his parents a lot more.
And yet you mix emotions and tone in the movie
I love Korean movies and Korean drama and Korean dramas are very good at genre-bending.
It’s a fun cast. How did you find them?
Half of my cast I found on FaceBook. I did a FaceBook casting campaign because I knew I needed international actors and didn’t want American actors doing an accent. I didn’t have global casting resources so I held this online casting campaign. I am a big advocate for non-actors.
I’m a fan of Mike Leigh and love his process. For me the script was very much the blueprint. My first film at Sundance, Miss Monday, which I shot in London, starred a woman who had never been in a movie before and she ended up winning best actress [Andrea Hart].
In Seoul Searching, the girl who plays Kris [Rosalina Leigh] had never acted before and when she sent her tape she just killed it. The some with the guy who plays Mike the military student [Albert Kong] and I found the one who plays Sergio [Esteban Ahn] on YouTube. He’s from the Canary Islands and was living in Seoul and is a music producer.
When and where did you shoot?
Production took about seven weeks and we shot entirely in South Korea during the summer at the beginning of 2014. It’s usually extremely humid and hot but we were lucky. We shot during the monsoon season so I expected a lot of rain but the gods were on our side.
Who funded the movie?
We were very fortunate to get the help of the Korean Film Commission’s location incentive, where they give back 30% of your spend in Korea. That helped us find financiers. There’s a cap on how much the film commission can give out. It was us and The Avengers 2. They came and took up most of the money and we were shocked and talked to the film commission and they decided to raise more money for us.
What impact did summer 1986 have on you?
It made me a lot more curious about the world and helped introduce me to my heritage. It helped me come to terms with that duality. What I realised was I am Korean-American and that in and of itself was our identity. I know a lot of children of immigrants who have a very hard time, even as adults.