‘Seoul Searching’ with Justin Chon

February 13, 2015
Justin Chon, middle, in Benson Lee's "Seoul Searching." (Brewery Hills Entertainment)

Justin Chon, middle, in Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching.” (Brewery Hills Entertainment)

By Tae Hong

If there’s one thing Justin Chon loves, it’s movies.

For a second-generation Korean American kid growing up in a predominantly white Orange County neighborhood, movies — movies about cartoon rabbits, about Spanish treasure maps, about Neverland and about time-travelling cars — were the shaping blocks of childhood, of dreams.

And if he was sitting in theater seats all those years ago, it’s on the big screen that he now finds himself. Best known for big-name projects like “Twilight” and “21 & Over,” the 33-year-old actor most recently led an ensemble cast in Director Benson Lee’s “Seoul Searching.”

The indie effort, which follows a camp that gathers an eccentric group of Korean American kids in the 1980s in what critics have called “Bibimbap Breakfast Club,” premiered at Sundance Film Festival last month.

Chon, who had known Lee before the film through another project, plays Sid Park, a teen rebel based on Lee’s own experience visiting South Korea as a teenager.

Filming took Chon to the homeland, from which his parents hail and where his father was an actor.

“I like to do movies I care about. It’s not just about commerce,” Chon said. “That’s why I took the role on ‘Seoul Searching.’ I didn’t get rich off of it, I don’t think I’m going to get famous off of it, but I really respect Benson’s work, and I really love the script. As a Korean, and specifically as a Korean American, I thought it was important.”

The Korean cast, comprised of actors from Germany and Spain as well as J-pop star Crystal Kay, filmed for two months in both the Korean countryside and in Seoul.

He fell in love with both the food (“Korean-style fried chicken, Korean beef, insane dry-aged KBBQ.”) and with the cast, which also included veteran Korean actor Cha In-pyo.

“He’s so gracious, such a great person. Great humanitarian. He’s a stand-up guy. I learned a lot from him, not just about acting, but also about life,” Chon said.

The film deals with adoption, the after-effects of the Korean War and each of the kids’ Korean American experience.

“Especially in my own storyline with a Korean dad, it’s very much an issue that all Korean guys grow up with — miscommunication, identity issues, cultures clashing,” Chon said.

(Photo Russell Baer)

(Photo Russell Baer)

His own Korean American experience was a meeting of two worlds, a jam session of H.O.T and Tupac, of Death Row artists and Seo Taiji, of Korean film classic “Friend” and American film classic “Back to the Future.”

A Silicon Valley internship the summer he was 18 years old was enough to convince him that business was not his forte. He turned to acting.

“I didn’t think I would make anything doing it,” he said.

It’s been a 13-year journey through Hollywood since his first acting class, when he was asked to improvise a scene in which his grandmother was dying.

He remembers breaking down and crying, his back to the class, as he tried his hardest to suppress his emotions.

“As I turned, everyone started clapping and cheering. I think it was the first time in my life where I was applauded for being truthful with what I was feeling. No mask, just raw,” he said. “People find that beautiful, and that’s what acting is. It’s shedding light on the human condition. That was the most cathartic thing I had experienced. So I said, let’s do this.”

His end goal isn’t fame. It’s experience he’s after, whether it be a chance to film in places like New Zealand or Russia or taking up roles outside of acting.

Chon recently tried out the director’s chair for a low-budget film called “Man Up,” which he also wrote and produced. He called it the hardest job of his life.

An indie comedy about a teenage slacker who “mans up” after he accidentally gets his Mormon girlfriend pregnant, the film will be featured in upcoming film festivals, including CAAMFest in San Francisco.

It’s a part of a content-creating process he looks to continue, even as he sifts through project offers and a role on the Yahoo series “Sin City Saints.”

“[Films] are the things that shaped my childhood,” he said. “And to be even just a little iota, a little part of that? It’s a total honor. To be able to have that privilege — that’s amazing.”