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Review: Endearing ‘Seoul’ runs emotional gamut

  • COURTESY FIRST POND

    Kang Byul and Esteban Ahn star in “Seoul Searching.”

“Seoul Searching”

Not rated (1:45)

Opens today at Kahala 8

An appealingly gung-ho cast and let’s-get-along message make “Seoul Searching” a buoyant, if undisciplined, comedy about foreign-raised South Korean teenagers getting in touch with their ethnic roots.

That’s a bigger challenge than it sounds. Set in 1986 and inspired by a now- defunct summer camp in Seoul designed to introduce these globally scattered youngsters to their heritage (a program the Korean-American writer and director, Benson Lee, once attended), the movie pokes at cultural identity with a very broad stick. Simultaneously whacking and embracing as many stereotypes as possible — the German-raised student is organized and polite; the Mexican is a skirt-chasing hedonist — Lee paves a boisterous road to amity and understanding.

Potholes abound, including student interactions zinging with racial slurs. But the movie’s filthy mouth is balanced by its warm heart, an organ that gradually takes charge as the story progresses. Tonal shifts from ribald to sweet and from raucous to sensitive aren’t always smooth, and the sentiment can get gooey. (As back stories emerge, so do a surprising number of violent and alcoholic fathers.) Yet a daughter’s reunion with her birth mother is handled beautifully, and young Jessika Van is terrific as a rebellious pastor’s daughter whose acting out conceals a touching need for attention.

Energized by a catchy soundtrack packed with the Clash, Spandau Ballet and Erasure, “Seoul Searching” is rude, funny, silly and poignant. Above all, it’s kind; Lee understands that belonging is a feeling that many of us may never experience.

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The New York Times does not provide star ratings for movie reviews.

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