Return to Seoul
- Director: Davy Chou
- Writers: Davy Chou
- Starring: Park Ji-Min , Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-Young
Where are you from?
It’s an innocent, innocuous question most of the time, but in Return to Seoul, it contains layers of complicated emotions. The film deals with issues of identity (both personal and national) and self-acceptance, and it’s buoyed by a magnificent performance from Ji-Min Park in her first on-screen role. It’s also a kind of cinematic memoir (don’t roll your eyes yet) for writer and director Davy Chou, who gives the film a nuanced look at dual citizenship from the perspective of someone that’s actually experienced the unique phenomenon firsthand.
Park plays Freddie, a woman born in Korea who was abandoned and adopted by French parents and lived her entire life in France. The film begins shortly after she arrives in Korea and, in the first of many star-making moments for Park, Freddie unites the café she’s hanging at between all the disparate strangers into one table and pairing them off for maximum romantic potential, despite not being fluent in Korean. From there, Freddie begins to learn more about her parents, where they are now, and begins to wrestle with whether she should or should not contact them. Actually, the decision is left out of Freddie’s hands, as the adoption agency acts on her behalf and relies on the birth parents to return the sentiment. Return to Seoul shares a lot of similarities with 2022’s Broker, in that both deal with the challenges of the adoption system, but the former is a more centralized character study.
It’s Freddie’s father (Oh Kwang-rok, spectacular as well) who actually responds, and their reconnection is fraught with all of the awkwardness and regret you’d expect. He remarried and started his own family but pleads for Freddie to return to South Korea to make up for the time they lost together. It’s here where Chou’s script begins to reveal its emotional honesty, as Freddie not only refuses him but makes a series of decisions that threaten her likeability. She views her trip as a kind of vacation, but fails to calculate the emotional toll that her reconnections will take.
From there, Chou makes some curious structural decisions, including a two-year time jump and another five-year jump as Freddie becomes more integrated into Korea. She still doesn’t learn the language, but she begins to accept the Korean name her parents gave her at birth, and she never stops the pursuit of reuniting with her birth mother. The time jumps allow the film to slow its momentum considerably, but it also gives us a chance to see how much things have changed from Freddie’s perspective, and how much they’ve stayed the same. And Park matches Freddie’s shifting mentality in subtle, smart ways throughout the film, retaining her youthful anger but accepting a changing worldview. It’s a restless performance, one that makes us believe that Freddie staying in one place, or doing what people expected, would be the worst outcome imaginable. Nevertheless, Chou manages to keep the film grounded in Freddie’s reality; whereas most films would likely present her new reality as a crisis of self, Return to Seoul doesn’t delve into simplistic narrative shortcuts.
Above all, the film is about how we can only allow ourselves to grow once we let go of the baggage and resentments that hold us back. As Freddie’s journey progresses, she reconnects with her father, who quit drinking and learns to play the piano (music is the subconscious connective tissue that passes through these generations). And Freddie’s disdain for what Korea represents subsides, leading her to be a happier person overall and finding a romantic partnership after enjoying the single life earlier.
Chou himself is of Cambodian-French descent, and he’s been forthright in acknowledging the origin of the film came from a Korean-French friend whose journey mirrors that of Freddie. We’ll always feel a magnetic pull towards our homeland in some regards – whether that be a country, a town, or a state – and it’s that underlying loyalty that gives Return to Seoul part of its power. Indeed, Freddie tells her adoptive mother that the trip to Seoul was an impromptu one, brought on by logistical issues. And while that may be true, there’s an air of curiosity to it, as she wonders how much of her identity can really be tied to a place. After all, it’s easier to answer “where are you from?” but more difficult to answer “where do you belong?”
Return to Seoul will be available in theaters nationwide on March 24.
- None. The film was Cambodia’s official selection for the 2022 Oscars, where it was unfortunately snubbed.