American film and television need more diversity, and consumers are demanding it. From the ripple effect of the #OscarsSoWhite dialogue, hopes for a positive reception of minority-based productions and casting; to public outcry over the whitewashing of recent action films, the entertainment world needs stories that reflect the changing population. Enter Korean-American filmmaker Benson Lee, an award-winning producer, director and screenwriter, whose most recent project, “Seoul Searching,” is rising to the occasion.
Noted as “one of the most personal films you’ll see in 2016” by Nick Allen of RogerEbert.com, “Seoul Searching” is a coming-of-age dramedy experienced through they eyes of several Korean teenagers from all over the world, as they participate in a government-sponsored summer program to immerse them in their heritage. The usual formula is there — teenage angst, humor and hormones — including the nostalgia of the mid-1980s. Truly, what sets this film apart is its all-Asian cast. In fact, at the time of its release this past summer, “Seoul Searching” was the fourth Asian-American film in 30 years with wide distribution in theaters. As his sixth film, the weight of this is not lost on Lee. Here, he shares how his own experiences as a teenager influenced the development of “Seoul Searching,” how obstacles as a minority in the entertainment filed have impacted him, and what he would tell his younger self about his journey.
Every project has a process, especially that of a story over 18 years in the making.
“The process (of developing “Seoul Searching”) started in 1998—I decided I wanted to do a movie, a teen comedy, in the vein of a John Hughes movie,” Lee reflects. “John Hughes was a director back in the 80s who’s very famous for elevating the teen comedy to a new level.” Combining drama and comedy to articulate aspects of Lee’s own experience in 1986, when he was a participant in a Korean summer program, is what made Hughes appeal to him most.
“(Hughes) Addressed real teen issues, all at the same time as movies like ‘The Breakfast Club’ or ‘Sixteen Candles.’” Lee found that he loved these and similar movies, but hated the depiction of Asians within them. “I could combine the comedy and the drama, and make people laugh and cry at the same time.” Although Lee wrote the first draft of “Seoul Searching” in 1998, it would take 16 years to raise the money to produce the film. He revealed that, at the time, no one understood the project or if it was for Asian or Asian American audiences.
“During that period, I spent a lot of time developing the story. It hasn’t really changed that much, since it’s based on a true story. It took a while, but I’m glad I finally made it. I’ve no regrets.” Lee said.
Creating “Seoul Searching” did present unique challenges for Lee.
“If you don’t have a recognizable star in your movie—and, unfortunately, in the United States there are no recognizable Asian American stars (in film) except maybe Jackie Chan—that is probably the biggest challenge,” Lee stated. “I wouldn’t put Jackie Chan in this movie,” he joked. “People don’t want to finance a film where there are no recognizable stars.”
As a person of color, specifically Korean American, Lee acknowledged that there are passive obstacles he might have faced throughout his career.
“What’s interesting about being a director is, people don’t really see your face or your skin color. What they do see is your work,” Lee said. “Perhaps I didn’t get certain jobs because they felt that I wasn’t close enough to the material as a Korean American.” He shared that he does not recall any in-your-face moments within his career that had anything to do with his race. He also noted that he felt more opportunities as a Korean American through “Seoul Searching” because it was widely received as diverse in its casting, drama and comedic tones.
Before a new project comes to fruition, Lee decides in advance if it is worth investing time and energy into.
“There have been projects where, yes, I decided I couldn’t go forward because of political, economic or cultural reasons,” Lee revealed. “I’m referring more to documentaries. When it comes to features, I am just obsessed and I really try everything in my power to make them happen.”
Asian Americans have made much progress in the American movie industry, almost completely independent of Hollywood’s support; and, more notably, due to social media reach and other digital avenues. Lee is in agreement.
“We have been able to make our movies and there has been a lot of Asian American presence on YouTube, and so on, but it’s still tough,” Lee admitted. “There still is a mainstream that we are trying to break into. What’s really important is that, finally we’ve got these opportunities, we’ve proven ourselves but (mainstream media) need to recognize that and give us more opportunities for the risks we’ve taken independently.“ He also acknowledged the increase in positive mainstream content available in recent years that are smart, engaging and growing in representation.
Conversely, he is more interested in inclusiveness than solely about future developments in Asian American filmmaking.
“I would rather see more films and content that are inclusive, that includes all kinds of diversity together in one movie. I’m of course supportive of Asian American films, the Asian American experience, but that’s really a niche thing that caters to, unfortunately, the choir, if you will.” Lee candidly followed with, “I don’t know what the future of this country is, to be honest, what with the election of our new president. I don’t know if people will want to see diversity anymore. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Nonetheless, if Lee was granted unlimited funding for a dream project, he would focus on one of the hottest pop culture topics to date: the Hallyu Wave.
“Yes, K-Pop, for sure!” A lover of great music and dance, he also has an interest in a creating a dance film with no dialogue. “I’d do a twerking project as a comedy,” he laughed. Lee spearheaded “Planet B-Boy,” a documentary about the world of break dancing in 2007, and directed wide-released “Battle of the Year,” based upon his documentary, in 2013.
Lee confessed that “Seoul Searching” has been his most rewarding project thus far in his career.
“I struggled so hard and it was really, really difficult. Being that it was a 16 year odyssey, to see it finally come to fruition was…was crazy. You feel like you’ve developed this project as a parent. It’s just beginning now, it’s really exciting.”
When asked what he would tell his younger self about the journey he’s been on in his life, Lee released a heavy sigh.
“I think I would tell myself, ‘Don’t be so obsessed. Try to have a normal life outside of your passion and your vision.’ You have to take a break once in a while and learn about life by living it,” he said, his tone tender and reflective.
While down the proverbial memory lane, Lee stopped to think if he had one more morsel to share, with regard to returning to something from the visions of the younger version of himself at this point in his life. Assuredly, and with a chuckle, he replied, “No. Actually, not. At all. I think that I’ve evolved so much since then. The best parts of my younger version are still in me. So, no, I don’t have to return to anything, I just have to continue moving forward.”
Ashley Griffin is a diverse writer, blogger and YouTube Personality. A nomad at heart, Ms. Griffin currently resides in Houston, Texas. Find “Multifacetedacg” on YouTube and shoot her a message on Twitter.