Return to Seoul

Frédérique Benoît (newcomer Park Ji-Min) was given up for adoption in Korea and has made a life in Paris with her adoptive French parents.  But when a vacation flight to Tokyo is canceled, the now twenty-five year-old finds her identity thrown into turmoil when she makes an impulsive "Return to Seoul."

Laura's Review: A

Writer/director Davy Chou combined his own experience being born in France to Cambodian parents and that of an adopted Korean friend and his star Park Ji-Min to create a complex character study of a woman who uses her power over men to vent her abandonment issues and music to make connections.  The film takes place over eight years in three acts and a coda, each segment introducing us to a reinvention of Freddie in a country and culture increasingly becoming her own.

We first meet Freddie as a brash tourist checking into a hostel by asking to hear what desk clerk Tena (Guka Han) is listening to on her headphones (it’s a lovely Korean pop ballad, “Petal” by Lee Jung Hwa, which we will hear again).  Tena, who speaks French, and her Francophile friend Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom) take Freddie out that evening for a typical Korean meal.  Told that it is customary not to pour one’s own drink in Korea, Freddie grabs the bottle of soju and pours herself a hefty shot, then takes the bottle around the restaurant, gathering strangers into one big party (the solemn Tena looks slightly mortified while Dongwan makes amused apologies, claiming Freddie’s ‘had a few’).  Freddie will learn about Hammond, an agency established to connect adopted Koreans with their birth parents, from these new friends and will wake up with one of them, Jiwan (Dong Seok Kim), asking him in English if they had sex and suggest they have it now.

Freddie is so determined to project someone perfectly able to get by on her own, we’re unsure if her trip to Hammond the next day was her objective all along.  She has little for her interviewer (Myung-hee Chung Lee) to go on, yet the woman manages to find her file, telling her she’s found addresses for both her father and mother only to be asked why she took that liberty.  Nonetheless, after hearing that Hammond can send three telegrams and no more if there is no response, the confrontational Freddie agrees to have them sent.

We’ll see this conflicting behavior from Freddie again and again, most notably when Tena accompanies her to Gonsan after her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok, "Oldboy") replies.  He and his sister (Kim Sun-young), mother (Hur Ouk-Sook) and two daughters greet her with open arms and genuine regret, but she finds their maudlin sentimentality oppressive and leaves abruptly, rejecting their offer of a home by stating that she is French (her father’s wife (Cha Mi-Kyung, "Burning"), who stays in the kitchen preparing food and drink, shyly offers a welcome over a phone translator, a poignant scene).  Tena becomes increasingly disturbed by Freddie’s cruelty, both she and Freddie’s aunt softening their translations as she demands her father, who tries to contact her incessantly, especially when drinking, stop.  At the end of the first act, Tena will actually walk away when Freddie, after a mesmerizing solo dance to composers Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset's original song 'Anybody' in a café, blithely rejects the weepy, smitten Jiwan.    

Two years later, Freddie, in a black bob, red lips and black leather, is chicness personified, now completely comfortable in Seoul’s streets on her way to meet to meet online hook-up, André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, "Caché," "Kompromat"), a French arms dealer so impressed by her self confidence he brings her into the game.  She’ll return home to Korean artist boyfriend, Kay-Kay (Lim Cheol-Hyun) and his 27th surprise birthday party (more music and dancing, this time in a druggy haze with two partners), where we meet her work friend Lucie (Emeline Briffaud), another adoptee.  She confides to Lucie that after six telegrams, her mother finally contacted Hammond to say she did not want to meet her, and yet on every birthday all she’s ever wondered is if her mother is thinking of her somewhere.  A funny email from her dad and two half-sisters will find her laughing crazily and then making a phone call…to André.

Third act Freddie is suddenly more mature and conservative in appearance, arriving in Seoul on a business trip with French boyfriend Maxime (Yoann Zimmer, "Summer of '85").  They’ll meet her aunt and father, who finally appears to move his daughter by playing a composition he wrote for her (Maxime won’t be as lucky).  Freddie will finally get her long-awaited wish, only to reappear in a coda, now an outdoorsy type at a country inn who’s found herself, literally making her own music.  Chou astounds with a slippery conclusion that launches Freddie out into the world, now the self reliant adult she merely pretended to be at the film’s onset.

The filmmaker impresses on so many levels here, his work with largely inexperienced actors exceptional, his repetition of motifs (ballet shoes, evolving phone technology, the essential music) moving his themes forward.  Park Ji-Min is a chameleon who embraces her character’s thornier aspects while keeping us on her side, a truly remarkable performance.  But “Return to Seoul” is rich with portrayals large and small, from Cha Mi-Kyung grabbing her moment to the somber Guka Han acting as our guide into this journey, the most experienced actor, Oh Kwang-rok, portraying a father we suddenly realize is far more like his daughter than she knows.

Robin's Review: B

Freddie (Park Ji-min) was born of South Korean parents but adopted, when just a baby by a French couple. 25 tears later, she decides to return to the land of her birth and find her real parents and put to rest the ghosts that have haunted her. She is not prepared for what that journey will mean to the troubled young woman in “Return to Seoul.”

Newcomer Park Ji-min makes an impressive debut as a young woman searching for her past but is not well-equipped, emotionally, to cope with it. She makes the trip to Seoul with the goal of finding and talking to her Korean parents - in just two weeks. Then, she faces the bureaucracy and red tape in an adoption system more inclined to support the birth parents and not the adopted child. She finds and meets her father but her mother is more elusive and the two week trip ends up spanning years.

As I watched Freddie interact with others – new acquaintances, strangers, bureaucrats - I realize that she is several things. She is naïve and unsure of how to interact, socially, in a foreign culture, even though it was her “culture” when born. She is also selfish and does not consider the feelings of others. As such, her character arc is not broad but more subtle.

Writer-director Davy Chou tackles a subject that is prominent, especially in South Korea, but virtually unknown to the rest of the world: adoption and what it means for the child stuck in the middle. We see this through Freddie’s eyes and how her character copes with her brave and unknown new world, making for a good study.

Sony Picture Classics gave "Return to Seoul" a 2022 qualifying run.  It opens in select theaters on 2/17/23.