Seoul Searching: Racism and Identity Part 1

Seoul Searching (2015) is a coming of age comedy set in Seoul, South Korea in the 1980s based on real-life events. The film follows a group of foreign-born Koreans reconnecting with their Korean roots through a government-sponsored program; a program founded in the hope that young Koreans could develop a relationship with the country and culture of their ancestors.
Benson Lee, the film’s producer and director, brilliantly highlights the palpable cultural differences that were felt between native and foreign-born Koreans during the postwar era, some of which have remained to this day. By shedding light on the different circumstances of each character and their family background, Lee criticises certain aspects of the culture whilst providing the viewer comic relief to break the tension from the more serious scenes. Themes of racism, identity, and abusive relationships are portrayed throughout the film in a visceral manner. The first theme I would like to discuss in this three-part review is racism.
Seoul Searching Cast
Seoul Searching’s all-Asian cast is a refreshing sight in the American film industry. Underrepresentation of minorities on the big screen has been a long-running issue in Hollywood and Lee’s film makes a fantastic starting point for turning that around. The film provides its own commentary on modern cultural insensitivity and the changing landscape of 21st-century entertainment norms that have moved away from its whitewashing past.
One character stands out as a shining image of the racism and stereotyping during the 80s in America. Mike Song (Albert Kong), a cadet from the Virginia Military Academy, finds himself in distressing situations and conversations throughout the film. If Song’s Japanophobia is not enough to enrage some viewers, his prolific use of the n-word will. During the first bus scene, the viewers are hit with the hurling of insults and the usage of the n-word between Mike and three inseparable friends. These racist and outrageous exchanges continue to happen between the four young students throughout the film (until the expulsion of the three friends). Just as distressing are the encounters with the Japanese class touring South Korea. Song’s animosity towards the Japanese leads to a brawl at one of the sites, a fight that becomes ironic when, after the brawl, the group is informed that the Japanese students are also of Korean descent.

The Korean teachers are not far behind in stereotyping their students, and vice versa. One example can be seen in the defamation the teachers partake in during an after-hours drinking session; when Sid (Justin Chon) overhears the conversation it creates further conflict between him and Mr. Kim (In-pyo Cha). For their part, students such as Sid and Sue-jin (Byeol Kang) have their own negative preconceived notions of male Koreans which hinders their ability to bond with either their teachers or classmates.
The scenes between Mike and the three friends, accompanied by the encounters with the Japanese class, shows the complexity of racism within the Asian community inside and outside of the United States. Finally, the low opinions that members of both groups hold of each other in regards to their respective cultural traits can be seen as an overarching insensitivity that they share in common.
Seoul Searching is now streaming on Netflix.
(Seoul Searching IMDb, YouTube)

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