I hate summer camp. That is what initially came to my mind during my viewing of “Seoul Searching”, which is about one eventful summer camp in South Korea, 1986. The movie initially made me wince as evoking my dreadful personal memories of summer camps, and I also cringed as observing its numerous broad stereotypes and blatant clichés, but then I came to enjoy its mood and spirit while also caring a bit about its unruly but colorful adolescent characters.
During its prologue scene, the movie gives us the brief background information about a real-life South Korean summer camp for young adults of Korean descent from various countries including US. Its main purpose was having these kids learn more about their cultural heritage, and I heard later that director/writer Benson Lee actually participated in this summer camp in 1987.
The story begins with many different adolescent boys and girls of Korean descent arriving in Seoul, and we are introduced to some of them one by one. They are Sid (Justin Chon), your typical punk kid from US; Grace (Jessika Van), your average Madonna wannabe from US; Mike (Albert Kong), an uptight military school student from US; Sergio (Esteban Ahn), a gregarious (and horny) boy from Mexico; Klaus (Teo Yoo), a decent lad from Germany; Kris (Rosalina Leigh), an adapted girl from US; and a trio of rappers from US, who never stop annoying us with their ridiculous bravado.
While Mr. Kim (Cha In-Pyo) and other summer camp teachers expect camp participants to have a meaningful time as learning about their parents’ cultural/historical background, camp participants are determined to have a fun right from their very first day, and we soon see several boys trying to sneak into the section for girls. Thanks to Klaus, alcohol comes handy to them, and the mood certainly becomes jollier as they and several girls enjoy alcohol and music, though many of them suffer hangover in the next morning.
Along with them and other camp participants, the movie bounces from one comic episodic moment to another. There is an amusing moment when they and other students come across a bunch of students from Japan at that famous tourist site in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, and the movie later gives us an unexpected dramatic payoff moment when these two groups encounter each other again in some other notable tourist site. During one evening, Sid, Klaus, and Sergio sneak out of their camp for having more fun, but then they soon find themselves in a situation way over their heads, and that is another funny moment in the film.
Meanwhile, the movie shifts onto a more serious mode at times. Although frequently clashing with Mr. Kim, Sid comes to know more about Mr. Kim when they happen to have an honest conversation at one point, and that leads to the mutual respect between them. While clumsily trying to get closer to a girl named Sue-jin (Byeol Kang), Sergio comes to learn about her painful past, which incidentally reminds him of his own difficult past.
In case of Kris, the main purpose of her visit to South Korea is finding and then meeting her biological parents. Through Klaus’ kind help, she manages to find her biological mother and then eventually meets her biological mother as she has always hoped, but, not so surprisingly, her biological mother is not so willing to allow Kris to come back into her life, and that hurts Kris’ feeling even though she understands well her biological mother’s situation.
Although its mix of comedy and drama is not always successful, the movie mostly maintains its sweet, optimistic attitude well. Many of its adolescent characters are broad and simple to say the least, but they are presented with distinctive personalities like many teenage characters of John Hughes’ adolescent comedy drama movies in the 1980s, and I was entertained by some of their colorful moments such as when Jessika and two other girls give an impromptu performance of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. That moment looks rather silly at first, but their enthusiasm is palpable on the screen, and you will probably smile with amusement as watching their performance.
And I also enjoyed the camp party sequence where the adolescent characters in the movie show more of themselves through their changed attire. While we are not so surprised to see several romantic relationships fully blossoming among them, the movie throws a few surprises into this sequence, and I was particularly amused by when Sergio comes to find a right partner for him.
The cast of the movie, which consists of professional and non-professional performers, is uniformly good. While Cha In-Pyo supports the ground with his modest performance as required, the performers playing the summer camp students in the film relish each own moment to shine, and their resulting ensemble performance is sort of endearing.
In conclusion, “Seoul Searching”, which is currently available on Netflix, is an engaging adolescent comedy drama which works well on the whole as playfully handling heaps of stereotypes and clichés, and it entertained me enough to compensate for my initial negative reaction to the movie. I still hate summer camp, but this is a good summer camp movie at least.