Benson Lee's first film, "Miss Monday," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, making him the first Korean-American to be accepted in the festival's dramatic competition. Lee's back at Sundance with "Seoul Searching," a movie he describes as his passion project.
"Seoul Searching" tells the story of teenagers whose parents left Korea after the war. It's now the mid-1980s and the teens have been sent back to South Korea by their parents in order to learn more about their heritage. But in the vein of classic teen comedies, it seems like heritage isn't the thing most of these kids are interested in.
When Lee stopped by The Frame before jetting off to Sundance, host John Horn asked him about the personal experiences that influenced "Seoul Searching" and the various factors that led to the movie's long gestation period.
You were at Sundance in 1998 with your first feature, right?
What did that first trip mean to you and your career?
Oh, man, it was an incredible experience. I'd basically never even been on a movie set before, and then here I am hanging out with William H. Macy and all these great actors, producers and directors — people who were role models for me as a young filmmaker.
I was already in the mix, but I was very young — probably too young at the time. I didn't know that I had to have my next project prepared, so I learned a lot about the film industry through my first Sundance experience. But, funny enough, it was that year and that experience that inspired me to actually go ahead and write "Seoul Searching."
So this is 16 years ago, you're at Sundance, and you're probably thinking, I'll be back in a couple years with this movie.
And a couple years turned into 16. So, what happened? First of all, we should talk about the genesis of the film. The film opens with documentary footage of the Korean War, and there's a narrator explaining this summer program in South Korea. Is that narrator you?
Yes, that sexy voice is mine. [laughs]
Okay, so what are you saying and why is that the start of the film?
Well, this movie touches on the topic of being children of immigrants, or being bicultural, and I wanted to set it up because I haven't really seen a lot of movies about that particular topic. For people to understand the challenges that children of immigrants go through — not only Koreans, but all other people — they need to know that they come from a very different place than their parents, and the children are raised in a culture that quite often is very opposite of the culture that their parents are from. As a result it causes a lot of conflicts, especially for young people who are trying to figure out who they are.
So for a lot of Koreans who live in the United States, our parents immigrated here after the war, like in the '60s and '70s. And we grew up in the U.S. where, again, we didn't understand our parents' culture, which ultimately meant that we didn't really understand our parents, and it caused a great rift between two generations. That's the central issue for a lot of the characters in this movie.
So in the movie there are Korean-Americans, Korean-Japanese, Korean-Mexicans, and they all travel from where they have been raised and go back to Korea. Was that something that you personally did? Did you go to one of these summer camps?
Yes. This movie is based on a personal experience of mine when my parents sent me to Korea in 1986 because I got in a lot of trouble in high school and they felt that was related to my being disconnected from my heritage, and they also thought that I was confused. Which I was, but a lot of kids are confused at that age [laughs]. So they forced me to go to this program.
Of course, all of our parents' intent was for us to go there to learn about our heritage, but when you have 200 kids going through raging puberty, the last thing on your mind is your heritage. But I ended up meeting roommates from different parts of the world, and although we had very similar faces, we couldn't have been more different. So it really taught me a lot about the world, basically in that one room.
You touched on this earlier, but there's a lot in the film about children who are disconnected from their parents. There's a character who's been given up for adoption because of troubles in her mother's household, there are kids fighting with their parents, kids who haven't been able to talk to their parents about their feelings. Was that something that you were going through, in terms of trying to reconcile yourself with the people who are raising you?
Yeah, absolutely. As I mentioned earlier, that rift between my generation and my parents' generation was pretty deep, and it wasn't until I got to Korea that I realized this was a very common theme, even for the German or the French or the Mexican Koreans there. And that really helped me to accept that it wasn't just me. Sometimes when you're a kid, you feel like you're in your own little bubble and you're suffering by yourself, but what was great was that I met all these people who were going through a common experience.
We got to talk about it and we realized, Wow, this is a lot more common than we think, and it's coming from a certain place. That was our big breakthrough that summer, which helped us to understand and accept this theme of being Korean-this, or Korean-that. The most important thing we got out of that summer was that being Korean-American was our identity, just as Korean-German might have been; we would never be Korean or American, but we would always be bi-cultural, and that, in and of itself, was an identity.
You said you started thinking about this movie 16 years ago. Was the challenge in getting it made one of figuring out what the story was, figuring out how to get financing for it? What were the obstacles to bringing this movie to the screen?
All of the above. In terms of the financing, when I go to people and say that I have an entirely Asian cast in a story that takes place in Seoul in 1986, people kind of scratch their head. The first question I always got was, "Is it an American story? Is it a Korean story? What is it?" And I'd say, "It's both." That makes it unique, but it's very hard for people to conceptualize. Even my actors and my producers liked the story, but weren't sure how it'd turn out.
For me, it was always about doing a traditional teen comedy and throwing in a little Korean drama while also giving it some depth, which is hard to conceptualize, right? [laughs] So now everyone gets it, but yes, that was definitely one of the hardest things. I mean, it's hard enough to get an all-Asian cast financed, and then with the story as well it took some time.
This story developed as I developed as a director, and I don't consider myself so much a writer, but this was such a personal experience. I tried to find other writers to help me, but it never really cut it, so I realized I had to write it. That all took place over the course of 16 years.
This is a film that is populated with Korean actors and there's a lot of Korean language in the film. As somebody growing up who, I suspect, watched and cared about a lot of movies, did you see anything like this? Were there movies you saw as a kid in the English language that had Korean actors in them?
I've seen some, but not of this type. This is a very unique film, I think, because first of all it's a teen comedy, and that genre itself is very special. I was very much influenced by the movies of John Hughes, I love "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — this is part of my youth.
Teen films have changed since then; I think teens are a lot more cynical now and much more informed, and back then I just thought we were a lot more naive, sheltered and innocent. I wanted to preserve that in this film, but at the same time I love Korean dramas, so I wanted to add an element of that.
I love Wong Kar-Wai's films, I love the colors in his films that are shot by Christopher Doyle, and I wanted to put a little bit of that in. I love flipping genre too, so when you put all that together, I can personally say that I haven't seen anything like it.
So half the battle in independent film is getting the financing and the movie made, and the other half is getting a distributor. You'll go to Park City looking for a theatrical distributor for this film?
Yes, we're going after the American Dream in Park City. For any filmmaker who spends a part of their life on their movies, and especially on a passion project where it takes years to get financed, the dream is that you sell the movie and then people see it. You want to sell the movie because you want to pay back the people who were very generous to finance your movie, but for most indie filmmakers it's not about money. It's really about getting the movie out there and sharing the movie with an audience.