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Return to Seoul

At an unassuming dinner spot in Seoul, Freddie (Park Ji-min) is talking with a few newly made friends, Tena (Guka Han) and Dongwon (Son Seung-Beom). She is a Korean adoptee raised in France who has returned to her parents' country—but the reasons are not yet clear. Was it to get answers as to why she was given up? Was it to find herself? Perhaps it was to connect with the culture that transnational adoption took away from her? In this moment, Freddie picks up the soju bottle on her table. Wait, it’s rude to pour a drink for yourself, cautions one of her tablemates. It signifies she isn’t being cared for. Brashly, Freddie pours the soju anyway and drinks it in a satisfying gulp. She has always taken care of herself. 

In just one early scene, “Return to Seoul” writer and director Davy Chou sets the tone of Freddie’s visit and several moments in years still to come. She immerses herself in a place of discomfort, one that will bring up repressed emotions for both her and her family. Her reluctance to fit in or observe cultural norms can be seen as western arrogance, but at the same time, it’s her way of protecting her independent, free-spirited self against expectations. She has no interest in coddling men’s feelings, and there's a limit to how much sadness she can take from her guilt-ridden biological family. 

Her dad (Oh Kwang-rok) drinks and writes her sorrowful emails expressing his life’s regrets in the hopes to convince her to stay in Korea. When she briefly stays with her dad and his family, her grandmother (Hur Ouk-Sook) cries at night while praying for forgiveness. It’s too much grief for Freddie to bear. At one point, she angrily says about her dad, “He needs to understand that I’m French now. My friends and family are there.” Yet, her personal boundaries are drawn and redrawn as Freddie experiences life, heartaches, and career paths. After all, this isn’t a movie about Freddie returning to France, it’s about her changing relationship with her country of origin and what that means to her as a woman who travels and loves freely, with few ties to keep her in any one place for too long. 

Incidentally, Chou takes Freddie’s journey out of Seoul and into the countryside, giving both her and the viewer a wider scope of her Korean history, from the metropolitan capital, where she’s finally able to get a copy of her adoption records to a riverside town where her father and their family lives. Yet, in her search for her origins, she sometimes looks and acts as an unwilling participant, asking the bus driver to turn back to Seoul or rushing to the safety of nighttime escapism as quickly as possible when emotions run too high. 

Along with cinematographer Thomas Favel, Chou visualizes Freddie’s trip under a cloud, with many of the movie’s key scenes taking place as the skies are overcast, raining, or when the streets are slicked with rain. The mood is restrained yet somber, sometimes even romantic, given the neon-lit scenes in the city and its nightlife. One of the few times a scene is brightly lit is when Freddie is talking with her adopted parents back in France on a hike. It’s a moment of clarity, but there's a disconnect between the time difference and what parents and their child are experiencing. Once she hangs up, she is on her own to figure things out for herself.  

As far as complicated characters go, Freddie is an impressive mix of conflicting emotions: angry, lonely, selfish, and resentful. But in her occasional vulnerable moments, there’s a sense of a wounded tenderness, like a bruise that has never quite healed up and will always be a source of pain. Even in Freddie’s cruelest moments, when her antics push away others (and, to some extent, the audience), there’s an understanding from the actor’s performance that her actions are coming from a place of pain and self-preservation. The role is a formidable assignment even for experienced performers, but this intricate character is wonderfully brought to life by first-time actor Park. She gives Freddie her scowls, her defensive body language, and her impish impulses to cause a little chaos from time to time. As the years pass in the movie, so also does Park’s performance acclimate, maturing subtly but not so much that we lose the essence of the character we met pouring her own soju. 

In time, Freddie learns to move and live in the places that made her uncomfortable. For a time, she calls Seoul home; later, it’s just a business trip stop. Her bosses deem her a “Trojan Horse” for her ability to move between countries—but there's a sense in the movie that she's still a woman without a place to call home. Chou’s “Return to Seoul” is an uneasy exploration of the concept of home and the heartache of losing it, following an imperfect heroine on her emotional journey to find a home in herself.

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Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Return to Seoul movie poster

Return to Seoul (2023)

Rated R for brief drug use, nudity and language.

117 minutes

Cast

Park Ji-min as Freddie

Oh Gwang-rok as Father

Guka Han as Tena

Kim Sun-young as Aunt

Heo Jin as Grandmother

Yoann Zimmer as Maxime

Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as Andre

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Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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