Seoul Searching And The Anti-Blackness Of Asian Excellence

***Warning for mild spoilers***

If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I believe that it would feel exactly the way I did the instant I heard about Seoul Searching back in 2015. Although I’m not specifically Korean, I was raised by a single mother who’d grown up in the 80’s and wrestled with reconciling her Vietnamese heritage with an American upbringing, so I understood immediately what it would mean to have a movie enter the Asian American canon that could finally inherit the well-worn throne of The Joy Luck Club. For months my friends and I plotted on the indie film, and at one point I even seriously considered driving three states away for the opportunity to see a screening. All this was before I realized Crystal Kay, renowned Blasian superstar, was listed in the credits and appeared in promotional material for the Sundance Film Festival favorite (even if you’re not familiar with her name, there’s a high chance that if you grew up an anime fan you’ve heard her work). No, this was no superficial kind of love, but the kind of love you didn’t know was possible and necessary until you saw it with your own eyes. And then, of course, I really did go to see it with my own eyes.

Since then I’ve read the mixed reviews and I feel like both the praise and critiques are fairly accurate. Calling Seoul Searching the Korean Breakfast Club is a bit like calling kimchi the Korean sauerkraut; sure they start with the same base ingredients, but it’s hardly fair to compare them any further. Instead of boring vanilla high school stereotypes we’re treated to the tale of teenage Korean foreigners flying to a government-sponsored camp to reconnect to the diaspora only to be met with hilarious culture clashes that evolve into poignant moments of maturity. No, it’s not the most original of coming of age stories, but I stand by its excellence as a recounting of filmmaker Benson Lee’s lived experience and asserting the ways in which Asians in the American film industry can occupy roles typically reserved for white actors.

My friend who went with me even pointed out that the only time white people show up in the film is in a photo. Given all these elements you’d think what would have emerged would be at the very least a solid movie I could look forward to revisiting whenever I needed help grappling emotionally with the realities of being an Asian American with tentative connections to her motherland.

SeoulSearching_1

Except I’m also Black, and this movie does very little to hide its ugly anti-Black underbelly. While I’ve written my criticism of racism in Korea previously, the instances here are as baffling as they are offensive. Not 15 minutes into the film and I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face repeatedly by a barrage of the n-word flying between the lips of a Hip-Hop caricatures influenced group of camp members and a staunchly racist soldier from Virginia. And for what, shock value? This is the same movie whose lead actress pretends to swallow her own vomit in front of a crowd immediately after spitting it up, a film that unabashedly addresses the topics of domestic abuse with very little introduction by its characters. What’s worse, Benson Lee’s first film Planet B-Boy, one of the highest grossing US documentaries in 2008, literally depends on carefully navigating the line between Asian appropriation and appreciation of Black culture. There are no excuses that can be made here.

Equally as heinous is the treatment of Crystal Kay’s character Jaime, the one actual (known) Black person in the entire piece and the number one reason Seoul Searching won my heart to begin with. When not relegated to the role of backdrop, Jaime spends her time cast as a Jezebel scheming on the only other character representing a brown culture other than Asian, our resident Mexican class clown and skirt chaser Sergio. This attraction seems incredibly dubious from the start and more than once you cringe in empathy as Kay does her best to follow the script she’s given, including being charmed by a man who outright lies about saying he’d like to “pop her cherry” in Spanish… to her face. In fact, I hardly see the purpose to Jaime’s character besides serving as a rival for a slapdash romance no one sees coming and catching the flack for having the same attitude that main character Grace Park proudly parades around for the film’s majority.

SeoulSearching_2

So do I still love this movie as much as I thought I would? Yes and no. I in no way condone the deeply problematic aspects of this film (all this without even touching on the some of the emotionally triggering trauma tropes and homophobia brought up further into the story) and wholeheartedly believe that the treatment of Blackness was incredibly harmful at worst and stupidly sloppy at best. But I also can’t deny the void that this movie fills in a country that continues to insist that people of color can only be sidekicks or tokens even when its our stories being told. It’s a movie I’m still eager to share with my mother if only because for all its flaws it truly does reveal necessary truths. Like many loves, my feelings in the end remain complex. Perhaps the best step in the meantime is to hope that the next Asian American classic will come soon and swiftly, and that this time it will be one that all of us in the diaspora can cheer for together, with our whole hearts for once.

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  • Lauren Bullock

    Contributor

    Lauren is a writer, performer, and reincarnated sailor senshi. She enjoys long walks in the woods and fighting crime as a costumed vigilante of many aliases.

  • Show Comments

  • Dan Biss

    Wow! Thought-provoking. Great piece.

  • Amoja

    You nailed a lot of the dis-ease I had with the film. There was soooo much to love, but quite a bit to be like… for real tho? I think it is an important film, it is entertaining, but yeah healthy doses of very problematic stuff.

  • brian

    Thanks for the review. I saw the trailer and was immediately curious, but very afraid of potential skin-crawl-inducing moments, especially as it related to black culture. And sad to say, after reading your review, I probably wasn’t far off. Was I the only one who saw the “Crystal Kay” character and thought, I’d be more interested in seeing a whole movie about HER.

  • Nguyen

    Damn, that’s a sorry thing to hear. With how much anti-Blackness is present in the Asian-America diaspora and beyond, this is not something small nor anything that should be ignored. We need to face it head on. Thanks for writing this.

  • Jonathan Yang

    Well written. Nailed it.

  • Aimee L McCoy

    I just found Seol Searching on Netflix. I was really excited to see this film. I’m an 80’s movie lover and this is all 80’s Americana from a different lens. I was even more excited about it when I saw the bi-racial woman in the cast. After the movie, I had all kinds of feelings and wanted to see if I was alone! No, I was not. Thank you! Great piece. I wished and hoped for better but disappointed just disappointed.
    *********************SPOLIER ALERT************************SPOILER ALERT***********************************SPOILER ALERT********************
    By the end I definitely felt like I just watched a tribute to John Hughes, which is not a bad thing for me, I love all his movies, but immediately felt a little dirty. I felt dirty for enjoying a movie that was so obviously racist in content and direction. I found myself annoyed at the devaluing and belittling of the representations of blackness. Not only do you have 3 HIP HOP influenced characters who use Nigga like the air they breath but these characters are also the bootleggers who are being criminal? when everyone else’s rule-breaking is pedestrian? They never really connect with anyone other than to be comic relief by jumping up and dancing randomly or spouting some stupid bar of the dome. Just for laughs, while the character who has the racists and violent bully attitude is a main character? who remains until the end and is redeemed because HE’s got to be racist violent and a bully because that’s the only way he can survive (in my most sarcastic and whinny voice possible) and the 3 Brohejos are unceremoniously kicked out after a very important scene. One of them is basically robbed and threatened with violence by rager soldier boy, they come back and lay hands. the 3 are never to be seen again or their takedown of solder boy addressed. No on to the only actual black (or black identifying character in the whole film) At the top, she is just the sexual desire of the Mexican, (typical. About the sexual object, not the Mexican element). She is never given any real personality other than a hot to trot girl whereas the cleary more interesting story of the actual Hot to Trot preacher daughter. Why need to unless you just want a punching bag. Yep! SO was she just eye candy that got totally disrespected by the end of the movie. Everyone absolutely everyone ended on a good note. there where no flips or quips at the party but her. So you force an out of nowhere female competition between a regular girl and the Korean man-hating girl at the last minute. The “competition was between Sergio and her to come to terms, it seems like you just debased the black girl for kick and giggles. It is amazing in this champion of Korean film diasporically it is so thick with anti-blackness. Black is loved as a costume buy continues to be hated as a people. Sad. I really wanted to love this movie and man right out of the left-field and Benson’s brain is this racist creation. it would have been better to just leave blackness alone. if you want to shine by debasing someone else your shine is really s-h-i-t! I too hope for some work that seeks lifts up Asian people without standing on someone else neck! Or taking Gabs and underhanded swipes at black folks or anyone for that matter but in this case black people. Shame on these little nuggets that “needed” to be in the film for some reason. Booo Booo Benson Boooo!

  • Brandon Miller

    I’m writing this a Black American man, married to an amazing Korean American woman, with 3 incredible little children. We just watched this movie and we wholeheartedly agree with all of you. Though this movie was enjoyable, it rubbed me the wrong way. The trio, the racist guy, and the treatment of the Crystal Kay’s character seems to be on purpose which is disappointing. We did enjoy most of the characters but I wish they pulled back more of their layers. The scenes with the Umma who gave up her daughter for adoption were incredible. Had our eyes drowning lol. Anyway. Great article! You hit the nail on the head.

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