Seoul Searching, the upcoming movie by Benson Lee, director of Planet B-Boy and Battle of the Year, is about a group of ethnic Koreans from all over the world gathered together in Seoul for a government sponsored camp to learn about their ethnic culture.  What they ended up with was a life changing experience where they learned more about themselves and how they fit in the world.  I had a chance to catch up with Mr. Lee in Seoul and we talked about his experiences filming with Seoul; what it was like working with an international cast, and the state of Asian Americans in entertainment.

First off, can you tell me about your background? What made you want to become a filmmaker? What were some of your aspirations?  

Benson Lee:  I was born in Toronto, Canada, but I was raised in Philadelphia, and then after that I went to school in New York.  At that point, I had no idea I wanted to be a filmmaker until I was helping my friends at NYU make their student films.  But at that time I had loved movies since I was really young.  But I had never thought that I could actually make them, but then when I started working with these guys, I really got the bug.  But it still wasn’t enough for me to think that I could actually make movies, so I didn’t do so well in school.  Because of that, I left New York because I needed to get out, and I went to Hawaii just for summer school.  I just wanted to go somewhere really different, and I ended at the University of Hawaii.

So I ended up staying because I loved it, and they didn’t have a film school; they had a video club, so I joined that, and I basically just started making stuff, and it turned out that the shorts that I made got into some film festivals, and that kind of gave me more confidence in terms of, “wow, this is maybe something I should do.”  Because I really loved it, and I gave up everything for it.  I was obsessed with it.  So that’s when I made the decision to become a filmmaker.

So after that, I ended up moving to France after I graduated with the hope that I would work in the European film industry, but it didn’t help that I didn’t speak French that well. So I moved over to London and that’s where I tried to work, but because of the time, which was the mid-nineties, they weren’t making that many movies in England compared to now.  So I ended up writing my own script, and it was based on this whole experience of mine: working as an aspiring filmmaker in England, and it was called Miss Monday, and I was very fortunate because I got into Sundance and my actress won best actress.  From that point on, I basically struggled, a lot, as any film maker.  I ended up making a documentary on B-Boys and the global B-boy scene called Planet B-Boy, and it did really well and got picked up by Sony, which was adapted into a 3-D dance feature called Battle of the Year, which I directed.  Then after my studio stint, I was like, “I really wanna go back to indie films.” So I revived this project which I wrote back in 1999 after I was in Sundance.  It’s called Seoul Searching

Yeah that was going to be my next question: can you tell us a little about your upcoming movie?

So Seoul Searching is based on a personal experience of mine: my parents sent me to Korea back in ‘86.  So I was in high school back then, and that was all for the sake of me learning about my Korean heritage.  But of course I met young Korean high schoolers from around the world who were away from their parents for the first time.  So we really didn’t care too much for our heritage, and it turned out to be a really big party.  But it also turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life in terms of meeting people from around the world; kind of expanding my horizons on the globe, because back then we didn’t have the internet.

So I thought it was a great [and very funny] coming-of-age story, so I wrote a script about it, but when I wrote it, there was really no market for it:  The United States [wasn’t] interested in an all-Asian film: [for example] Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow; nobody would touch that.  But it launched his career.  So historically Asian-American films, or Asian films in English, don’t really get the kind of backing that films in Korea do in Korean, or films in China do in Chinese, because we’re kind of on the periphery, and they don’t see who the audience is, either on the Asian American side or the Asian side. So we’re right in the middle.

So like most other filmmakers who previously went through the same experience as me, I had to raise the money on my own, but it took me a long time.  Luckily I found some investors in China who really liked the idea of this movie and they felt that it was the right time.  Also it does help that Korean pop culture is very popular, so the timing was finally good, and I got the money just to finish the film.  I still need to raise more money [for post-production], which is why I’m going to kickstart it.

Director Benson Lee

Director Benson Lee

Very nice!  Now I know in your career you’ve filmed in many different locations.  Take Planet B-Boy for example: just that movie in itself, you filmed in France, Japan, US, and other places.  So far what‘s your experience been filming in Seoul specifically for this movie?  Have there been any trials or tribulations?

Funny enough, we didn’t film as much in Seoul as we did outside of Seoul because it’s very expensive, and we had to find a high school to substitute as the camp where the kids stayed.  So we ended up shooting in Chungyang, which is the home of the red pepper.  That community was awesome to us and we found an amazing school.  But we also traveled around a bit: we shot at the DMZ set and at the Seoul Studio complex.  It was quite an interesting experience. We were one of the first real co-productions in terms of having two different teams working together on a more independent level.  Right now there’re a couple movies [having a co-production set in Korea]. Sense8 [for example], the new Wachowski’s series for Netflix was shot here, and also they shot The Avengers 2 in Seoul.

So Korea hasn’t done a lot of productions where they work with other countries in Korea.  It’s relatively new, but Korea has an amazing film culture and industry here; everyone is super professional and works really hard, but there’s a lot of cultural differences that created some issues.  But on the most part, everyone who worked on the film were troopers and we finished it.

The movie sounds similar to a coming-of-age film.  Similar to a John Hughes film: The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles.  That story has been told many times, and I was wondering how that story gets transformed and creates its own unique image through its setting: Seoul at the time of mid to late ‘80s, was going through rapid economic development and then simmering political unrest.

We didn’t get very political in the movie.  To be honest, when I attended the camp, we saw it but we didn’t really understand it because we were so young.  But it was there, and it affected the teachers at our camp, and Korea went through a heavy social, political, and economic transformation at that time.

But in terms of how it’s different with conventional American teen films, first of all you have an all-Asian cast. Secondly, we’ve got more global characters: we have a Mexican, a German, someone from England, an Italian, and they’re all Korean.  It really shows off the diaspora, but at the same time what unites them is that they’re all kids; they all want to have fun; and that they’re all going through the same issues that most kids go through universally, which is (a.) they want to have fun and (b.) they want to be understood and (c.) they all kind of have a lot of problems with their parents.

So in that respect it’s really universal.  Coming-of-age is one way of looking at it, but it really is a comedy with drama, so what they call a “dramedy” sometimes, but in the truest sense of the word.  These kids want to have fun and cause trouble, but they get into situations because the three main characters are the boys: Sid, who is this punker-rebel from LA; Sergio, this sort of Latin lover from Mexico City; and Klaus, who’s like this really square German guy.  They’re very different from each other, but it’s their differences that make them learn a lot about things outside of themselves. But on top of that it’s also the girls that they meet that really rock their world, because the girls are very different from them as well, and they kind of drag each other to places that are sometimes very dramatic.

For example, Klaus meets a girl named Kris Schultz, who’s actually an adoptee, and Kris hasn’t been back to Korea since she was adopted.  Because Klaus is the only one who can speak Korean really well, he helps her find her mother. Those two are night and day: Kris is this hardcore, heavy metal chick with the big hair and all that, and Klaus is a really proper square German guy, but they connect somehow because of their identities.  Klaus’s issue is with his parents: he’s a little ashamed of his parents because they don’t speak German well and he doesn’t want to be labeled as an immigrant.  Meanwhile Kris, who doesn’t even know her parents, kind of makes Klaus reevaluate things. So they go through a crazy experience and its not the kind of reunion that you would expect.  It opens up this huge Pandora’s Box on this past that this girl knew nothing about, and Klaus is sort of the facilitator.

Is any of that trouble that we’ll see in the movie based on your own experience?

Yeah I would say that the punker-rebel is based on me.  He goes through some hell.  He ends up meeting this girl named Grace who’s the pastor’s daughter, and at that time (and maybe it’s still the same) pastors’ kids are always problematic.  They go through their issues with their parents, and this girl is kind of a Madonna worshiper back when Madonna was really big in the ‘80s by dressing and acting like her.  So she kind of tortures this character Sid quite a bit.  That’s pretty much based on a true story.

From left, Teo Yoo playing "Klaus Kim"; Justin Chon playing "Sid Park"; Esteban "Sanchobeatz" Ahn playing "Sergio Kim"; and Albert Kong playing "Mike Kim."

From left, Teo Yoo playing “Klaus Kim”; Justin Chon playing “Sid Park”; Esteban “Sanchobeatz” Ahn playing “Sergio Kim”; and Albert Kong playing “Mike Song.”

I also wanted to talk about your cast which has already done some pretty notable work.  For example Justin Chon from the Twilight series; Crystal Kay, the J-pop artist; and also Heejun Han, who the American audience will know from his time on American Idol.  I was wondering how you approached this project to them and how they started to get involved.

Yeah, for me, casting is one of the most important aspects of a movie, because obviously these actors bring these characters to life, and every director wants to get the best cast, but at the same time, the truth is, it’s kind of limited.  Because there are a lot of Asian-American actors and actresses, but at the same time there aren’t. There aren’t a lot of roles for them, so the pool is a lot smaller compared with other groups.  For me, I’m big on working with non-actors too, because I have a certain approach and philosophy about acting, which is I believe that its not always about how much experience you have; some people are very inclined to be good actors, they just need to be directed.  So I ended up having a Facebook casting campaign…

That was actually going to be my next question…

Yeah, and through that I found a couple of my actors who really slayed their roles; they were amazing.  They’re going to be stars.  Also for me, I want this movie to inspire younger people to take up acting and get into film.  I don’t really support the struggle so much, because it is really quite painful.  But we do need more Asian-American actors, and there’s more opportunities now than ever before.

But at the same time, I do love working with a talented cast, and Justin Chon is a prime example.  I’ve seen him in a lot of movies.  But I haven’t seen all of his movies.  Funny thing is, Steve Yeun from The Walking Dead introduced me to Justin.  Our first meeting was a little weird, because I was drinking all night with Steve (laughs).  By the time I met Justin, I had fallen asleep.  But Justin was reintroduced to me by a talent manager and he’s a very interesting actor because he doesn’t always play the typical nerd or other stereotype; he’s got his own style and attitude, which I think is very unique.  So when I got reacquainted with Justin, and we were talking he said, “yeah I really want to do this.”  He read the script and he loved it and he really felt close to it.  He felt that it really embodied a lot of his concerns and issues that he had actually gone through. So I was like, “okay let’s do a read,” and we did a read and he was amazing.  So I casted him right away.

But he’s like a consummate professional, so what’s interesting with working with experienced actors is that they tend to take their jobs so seriously.  They don’t wing it; they really need to know what they’re doing, where they’re at, and what’s inspiring the emotions of their character in that scene, so I had to work with him a lot.  He really needed to build that foundation as an actor, and I found that incredibly refreshing, and so did he funny enough.  Because he said that he really doesn’t get that opportunity; it’s quite often that they’ll just give him a script and they won’t rehearse that much and they’ll just come on the set [and do it].  But he’s the type of actor that really likes to know what he’s doing and understand his character.

Meanwhile, I have a first time actor named Esteban Ahn.  He’s actually a music producer from Spain.  He plays Sergio, the Latin lover.  He had never acted before in his life.  A friend of mine sent me his link on YouTube and I watched him and he was so freaking funny.  He had so much swagger even though I didn’t understand what he was saying.  I just reached out to him and said, “Hey man, you need to be in my movie and audition for this character.”  He was just like, “yeah yeah let me try it!”  He didn’t really audition; we just met.  In terms of my approach I’m not going to audition a first time actor who’s never audition because I’m just going to try and mold them.  That’s what I did with him; I started working with him way earlier than anyone else, and he was just awful in the beginning.  The thing is, my job is to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera and we worked a lot together and, he nailed it.  He is the comic element in the entire movie.  You would almost think he had acted for a long time, because he figured out how to be comfortable playing himself in front of the camera and learned how to react to actors and also really get those little nuances that the camera picks up when you got a closeup on someone.  He was amazing.

Actually when you first announced that audition process I was thinking about applying but then immediately I was thinking, “nah, there’s no way in hell I’d get in.”  

Benson Lee:  I think just the act of trying something is important, because you learn something from that.  I think it’s very cathartic; I think people should just try acting.  Acting is an amazing exercise in emotion, and it’s also an amazing psychological exploration of character, and basically I think people act all the time.  If it’s with their girlfriend, a spouse, a child, a boss, whatever, I think people are constantly acting and they don’t know that they are.  That’s what I teach to actors who never acted before.

[For example] Crystal Kay never acted before and I just watched her.  She’s a singer and there’s been a lot of performers who crossover [into acting] and so she was amazing and just killed it.  I can’t even emphasize how much how satisfied I am by the performances of my actors.  It was amazing what happened and they all really supported each other and fed off each other.

[And also] Cha In-Pyo, who is a very established actor here in Korea and has been around for over twenty years.  I’d seen him in other movies and it was hard for me to find a Korean actor who could play a teacher that speaks English for an American audience, and his English is phenomenal because he studied at Rutgers when he was younger.  But when I learned about him I was really amazed, and so when I met him I was like, “wow, he’s such a nice guy,” and he brought so much wisdom and love to the set.  Some people haven’t seen him in really meaty roles, and I think hands down he’s one of the best actors in Korea.

The cast of Seoul Searching, with Cha In-pyo in center

The cast of Seoul Searching, with Cha In-pyo in center

In an NPR article, you had said that, “Asians are the least satisfied with their image in the media.” In your opinion, has the media made some strides portraying Asians?

You know, I did that interview about a year ago, and just within a year there’s been some huge leaps and bounds in terms of Asian roles: John Cho just got casted in a TV series…

Selfie right?

Yeah, and they’re doing a series on Showtime about an Asian couple who are former boyfriend/girlfriend, and its a decade later and they get together.  It’s just those kinds of roles that transcend what we’re seeing and make me really happy.  Because the truth of the matter is, when we [Asian Americans] are on screen, we question, “is this authentic? Is this something that I can relate to? And if it’s not something I can relate to, are they at least sensible characters?”  For the longest time, I never saw that, or I would see these small Asian films, and even a lot of those I couldn’t relate to.

So for me, what’s really important is that we’re promoting diversity not only for Asians, but for all races. Because America, and this world, is extremely diverse, and the way it is now is that its predominantly white in the media. But at the same time, people who are making content are also responsible for helping to diversify it as well.  Because you can’t depend on non-Asians to portray an Asian experience appropriately.  Unless they’re very very good at what they do, and they really care.  I think we’ve seen a lot of Asian stories being misappropriated and so it got to a point in my career where I was like, “well, you know, I can complain about it, or I can make something.” So I’m kind of on that kick right now: I want to make more movies with Asian leads, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be an Asian story.  I can do a horror film with an Asian lead without having it be about that person being in that position because he’s Asian.

It’s not about a character having Asian qualities, but it’s about how an actor and actress transmits those qualities to the audience.  

Yeah absolutely.  I like seeing movies that move forward and not dwell on the past.  I want the same for Asian Americans, African Americans, for Middle Eastern Americans.  That excites me about movies, and not just Asian American movies.   I could see something about young Indian Americans and I’m just like, “wow I wanna see this.”  Because there’s always a trickling of their cultural sensibilities that plays a factor in a character, if it’s tradition or what their parents’ expectations are or whatever. But even that is very relatable for a lot of people.

What I’m hoping for Seoul Searching is that all these bicultural people out there, whether they’re Korean this or German-African or whatever, can look at this and [relate to] this duality that these kids lived with.  I try not to make it very esoteric and say, “oh this is very Korean.”  I don’t like to explore that very much, because you don’t have to; I just really want it to be very universal and [show] that we all struggle with our parents, we all want to have fun, and every once in a while we all find an opportunity to transform ourselves.

Well I gotta tell you just from the screenshots alone the film looks great.  I can’t wait to see it!


Seoul Searching will have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.  You can follow them at Seoul Searching Facebook or at their Seoul Searching Tumblr.

About The Author

Jason Cho

Originally from the Virginia countryside, Jason came to Korea first as a teacher. Four years later, he's branching out to something new. When he's not doing Crossfit, he's checking out new restaurants to gorge himself and new experiences to excite him.