Director Benson Lee (Miss Monday) and actors Justin Chon (Twilight) and Jessika Van (Awkward) sit down at the round table in Koreatown’s Ahgassi Gopchang, what Chon calls an “authentic” Korean restaurant.
“Having this barbecue in the middle of the table with this vacuum, it’s Korean style,” Lee says. “It’s hard to find in America, a community table, where everyone is sharing food together, which is not common in the States. Asian is everything in the middle, and everyone sharing.”
They’re promoting their new film, Seoul Searching, a teen dramedy set in 1986, following a group of Korean-Americans (and Korean-Germans and Korean-Mexicans) as they make their pilgrimage to the motherland for a summer camp to learn about their culture. The film’s a direct descendent of John Hughes’ work, only the entire cast happens to be Korean; Lee wanted to correct the canon of ’80s films he loved, but he also had an ulterior motive: Educate people about what it means to be Korean — or Korean-American — with comedy.
“Being Korean-American means being a duality,” Chon says. “You belong, but you don’t feel like you belong, even with your other culture, because you’re not really accepted there either. You’re trying to adjust and find yourself.”
To be Korean-American is to be in a unique position, but it's also highly dependent on which generation you belong to. Lee and company talk about the war babies, like Lee’s parents, who fled Seoul for Busan on foot.
“They were 5 and it was like walking from here to Mexico and being a young person and losing everything,” Lee says. “It’s horrible. I know it was tough, but it’s really hard to relate when you’re a teenager. I didn’t like how it was used to teach me lessons. I’d hear the same story over and over again, telling me how lucky I was. But I didn’t feel lucky.”
The film re-creates this tension. Chon’s character is a punk kid who clashes with his Korean teacher and has a troubled relationship with his father. The adults are trying to do what’s best for their kids, but there’s no frame of reference for them to understand one another — one generation is obsessed with Madonna and materialism, and the other lost everything they had. This is a much more nuanced look at Asian parenting. Many Westerners have the notion that Asian children must obey their parents, and parents are overbearing and difficult. Lee says that it’s more like immigrant Asians view parenting as a job they want to be successful at, and they’re concerned with setting their children up for an easier life than they had.
“Asian parents take that very seriously from the moment you’re born,” Lee says. “Your first birthday, they throw a stethoscope and different symbols on the table and, depending on what you choose when you’re a kid, it’ll dictate what you’re going to be. It’s a lot of expectations from the get-go.”
Also represented in the film is the Korean-American adoptee, a completely different branch of the Korean diaspora. Korean babies were the first to be adopted internationally, with a booming business developing amid wartime and beyond, partly because of the shame of having children out of wedlock. Lee and Chon point out that in the 1980s and before, many American parents stripped their children of their Korean identity — with good intentions.
“Eventually, they say, ‘Wait, I’m not your child. I came from a different country,’ and it hits them like a ton of bricks,” Lee says. “Nowadays, parents are much more aware of how they have to maintain their [children's] identity and history. But older adoptees from that generation, they don’t even talk to their parents now, because their parents felt betrayed. There’s a lot of politics and emotion in it, but they’re a part of our diaspora, and the searching for the identity theme? They live that more than anybody else.”
Chon, whose father was a big actor back home in Korea, was both encouraged to follow his artistic dreams and to keep his culture in mind. His Orange County home was close to Los Angeles, and Koreatown was a frequent destination for the family. But he wasn’t always proud of his heritage.
“I remember when Koreatown Plaza was just a few places in the ’80s,” Chon says. “And see how much it’s grown now. It’s so gentrified, and now it’s the cool thing. Before, it was embarrassing. Koreans were just trying to make a small space for themselves.”
Lee says that whether they like it or not, food has been the ultimate ambassador.
“In The Breakfast Club, Molly Ringwald brings sushi for lunch, and Bender is like, ‘Sushi! What’s that?!’” But eventually, Japanese food caught on, then Thai, then Vietnamese. Lee says Korean food was the last one to reach American palates.
Chon is skeptical that people are experiencing actual Korean cuisine, though.
“If you’re talking to a Mexican, would you ever say, ‘Oh, I love tacos’? But that’s what people do with Koreans and barbecue,” Chon says. “It’s always funny they say they’ve eaten barbecue, because back in the day, Koreans couldn’t afford meat. They mostly eat vegetables. Barbecue is just the last decade. It’s not really sustainable, and more Korean-American than Korean. People from Korea come to eat here and are like, ‘This is amazing! What is this?!’”
Jessika Van, who’s Taiwanese-American, says she relates. When Chon asks if she wants tripe — this restaurant’s specialty — the answer is: absolutely not. Chon shrugs, saying even in the Asian-American community, people still get grossed out by the real authentic stuff. With Van’s heritage brought up, the conversation turns to acting. Chon’s quick to compliment Lee for casting a Taiwanese-American woman as a Korean. As actors, the two have had issues with casting in Hollywood.
“Asians, we discriminate against ourselves too,” Chon says. “I can’t get hired because I’m not Chinese. So, what? I’m only able to play Koreans who grew up in America?”
Van’s annoyed. “How often do British actors play these people from the South, and then you get things, like, ‘She has to be full Japanese, or they won’t see her.’ Yeah, OK, fine, I’ll just leave.”
Chon says he’s often called upon by news outlets to talk about the “diversity card.” In every press junket he’s done, someone asks him, “What’s it like to be the only Asian-American in the cast?” He thinks people have good intentions, but they don’t know how to market him as just an artist. People want to find an angle, to frame him in a certain way: the Asian.
“When I started acting, I was always auditioning for a Chinese delivery boy,” Chon says. “I was expected to know martial arts. They’d tell me to do it in the room, and I’d be doing this fake-ass kicking like an idiot. I can’t kick!”
Van can actually do martial arts — she's really good — but when Chon says he's annoyed that he wouldn't get time to research Thai or Chinese accents like any white person might research a German or Russian accent, Van nods her head in agreement. "As an actor," Van says, "I care about whether the character is, like, Buddhist or has a family," the kinds of textural traits Asian characters don't always get.
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Despite the ease with which racially driven annoyances about the industry come to these actors’ minds, they’re adamant about it being better than it was and just doing the best they can with what they have now. Seoul Searching, however, is a rare film where they can just act without having to prove how Asian they are. Instead, they have to make themselves believable as ’80s teens.
“People want the change faster and want it to happen in their lifetime,” Chon says. “But as an Asian-American actor, I’m OK. I make a good living. I get to travel. I want someone to step on my shoulders and do something greater than I did. Look where we are in terms of progress. We haven’t been fighting this fight for very long, and we’re doing OK. Things are getting better.”
Van takes another beef cube from the grill on the table, laughing. “When we’re 60,” she says, “we’re going to be so in demand.”
Seoul Searching premiere and ’80s prom, the Majestic Downtown, 650 S. Spring St., downtown; Fri., June 24, 9 p.m. seoulsearchingthemovie.com.