A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 4/4/2013. Photo: From left, actors Teo Yoo, Justin Chon and Esteban Ahn are part of the ensemble cast of “Seoul Searching.” Courtesy of Seoul Searching

By Kim Young-jin

Filmmaker Benson Lee remembers an experience shared by many Asian-Americans who grew up in the 1980s; enjoying movies of the era, but cringing whenever an Asian character came on screen.

With their exaggerated accents and social ineptitude, many felt the characters perpetuated stereotypes. Long Duk Dong, a bizarre foreign exchange student in the 1984 movie “Sixteen Candles,” became a notorious example of Hollywood’s portrayal of minorities.

Lee, a Korean-American, is out to turn the paradigm on its head with “Seoul Searching,” a 1980’s-style teen comedy slated to be filmed this summer in Korea. He says the film will be groundbreaking because it will offer an authentic portrayal of Asians and have universal appeal.

The independent film will be based on Lee’s experience when his parents sent him to a Korean government organized summer school in 1986 to learn about his roots. He befriended other Korean teens from around the globe forced to attend the school.

On the film’s Facebook page, Lee says he aims to make the kind of film he yearned for growing up, a “comedy that offers real Asian characters that have depth while telling a great story minus all the stereotypes and cliches.”

Benson Lee

Benson Lee

The 43-year-old director earned acclaim with his 2008 documentary, “Planet B-Boy,” and is readying for the release by Sony Pictures of “Battle of the Year: The Dream Team,” starring Josh Holloway, in September. But he calls “Seoul Searching” his “passion project.”

Its characters, including Sid Park, a classic punk-rock rebel, and Grace Park, a Madonna-obsessed pastor’s daughter, get themselves into the type of high jinks expected of teenagers away from home. However, they learn important lessons about themselves through the friendships they forge.

The film will delve into issues facing overseas Koreans and others who struggle with identity issues. Klaus Kim, an ambitious Korean-German, is fueled by his desire to escape his parent’s immigrant status; while Kris Schultz, an adoptee from Ohio, barely remembers her Korean birth mother.

“Seoul Searching” may prove to be groundbreaking even before it hits the big screen: In a bid to discover raw talent, Lee is casting the movie through the Facebook page. Actors of any level can post audition tapes and observers are encouraged to share opinions on their performances.

Lee spoke recently with The Korea Times about the film, portrayals of Asians in Hollywood and the potential of social media to dismantle misrepresentations.

Q: Why is the film being made independently?

A: I have to make this independently because it’s not the type of film I can pitch to the studios, primarily because it’s hard to get an all-Asian-American or Asian cast, involving a script with those types of characters, funded by a studio.

This is a really interesting film because although it is Asian-American, it is also international. It has a wonderful mix of story, humor, depth, authenticity and international insights. We feel very confident that this film will do well in today’s market.

Q: The story is based on your experience at summer school in Korea in 1986. How did that come about?

A: At the time I was 16 and didn’t really want to come to Korea. I grew up outside of Philadelphia in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood and all I wanted to do was go to the Jersey Shore with my friends.

But my father sat me down and did the whole “banana” thing with me. He peeled the “banana” and was like, “This is you. You’re Korean on the outside but your basically white on the inside and know nothing about your heritage. As a result it’s created a lot of problems for you. You don’t do well in school and get into trouble. We think this has a lot to do with the fact that you are out of touch with who you are.”

Q: What impact did the experience have you?

A: At the time, a lot of us had problems with our parents. I think Korean (American) parents now are a little more Americanized and open-minded compared to what we were going through in the 80s. Everyone was recent immigrants then and weren’t that open or accepted in American society, and that created a lot of issues.

(The camp) was an opportunity for us to actually discuss this for the first time. On top of that, there was always the question: Am I Korean, or am I German? Am I Korean or American? And we never felt like we were either.

The most important thing about that summer was that we realized — because we were with very diverse people who were going through the same thing — “I’m actually both.” The dichotomy doesn’t really need to exist.

Q: The film will include classic ’80s archetypes such as the pastor’s daughter, the womanizer and the rebel. What are the challenges when working with these archetypes?

A: They are just labels — it’s not really who they are. In the “Breakfast Club,” Judd Nelson’s character is the rebel. He has his views, and when he is tested, he gets defensive. But when they open up and show their vulnerable side, that archetype is gone and he’s just a regular person.

What archetypes are about, at the end of the day, is, “How do we go beyond the surface of things? How do we go deeper into who a person is and see their vulnerability? When you have characters of depth, they ultimately show a side they don’t normally show. We learn something about them that contradicts the surface of what we see, what we are introduced to.

Q: You have said you were a fan of 1980’s teen movies but hated the stereotypical portrayals of Asian-Americans in them.

A: Those movies captured the energy of young people and explored issues we were all going through. But when finally there was an Asian, they were the most pathetic characters.

I had already gone through some discrimination in high school in terms of being one of the few Asians. It wasn’t horrible, but still, it was obvious that I was different. When I saw those movies, there was one guy I could relate to, but he turned out to be the butt of all jokes and had a horrible accent, which was something I could not relate to.

The problem was that I rarely saw (Asian) characters, so when I did, it meant something to me. I think the danger of media is the stereotypes they portray in terms of giving people a certain view of either minorities or gender, whatever it is. When you have very few roles or instances when you get to see someone like yourself, you are really confined to that role. But everyone needs a hero, everyone needs to be validated.

Q: How are representations of Asians changing in the globalized era?

A: Asian culture is really globalized compared to 10 years ago, and it is way cooler. K-pop, for instance, is going international and people are really starting to notice that. You get these (international) people who at 16-years-old, are more color blind — they see beyond the race card and look at the performance. That has a profound impact on how they view Asians as they get older. They’ll have a special place in their heart for a boy band, for example.

Q: Why do your casting calls via Facebook?

A: When it comes to Asian actors, there are many, but not enough. This has a lot to do with A) their parents don’t want them to act and B) there’s not enough good roles to inspire people to devote their lives to acting. But there is tons of talent out there to be discovered. I just know I can find them through Facebook.

What we want to do is pave the path, through a great movie, so they can get opportunities to show off their depth with real characters, so they are not just playing whatever stereotypes are out there now.

Q: Do you have any particularly crazy memories from the summer of ’86?

A: Yeah, but they are sort of rated “R.” (Laughs)

Q: Fair enough. Poignant ones?

A: The most poignant thing is when you are in your teens; it is the most beautiful period in your life. It is the most idealistic, the most confusing and boundless period. Some people had really bad experiences and want to forget that. I had both. This is a celebration of youth, freedom and self-discovery. There is nothing better than when young people go through that.