Cambodian French filmmaker Davy Chou (Diamond Island) manages to pull off a deeply spirited character study and existential journey with Return to Seoul, a moody and convulsively lyrical yarn about a young woman who returns to South Korea the first time since being adopted after she was born and raised in France all in pursuit of meeting her biological parents for the first time. Melding an elliptical narrative with genuine melancholy, Chou’s style offers a sensory tone merged with striking visual elements of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, Chou, who is only 39 years old at the moment, has delivered a superbly composed sophomore feature that feels like it was crafted by a seasoned filmmaker. The film is a deeply personal and wise meditation on alienation, geographical dislocation, and self-discovery.
There are many surprises throughout the course of Return to Seoul, one that was Cambodia’s official entry into the Best International Oscar and it was certainly snubbed for a nomination. How Academy voters voted for All Quiet on the Western Front remake, Argentina 1985, and Close over Return to Seoul will remain baffling to me. While the film’s country of origin is Cambodia, the film’s setting is in South Korea and the main protagonist speaks French and a little English. There are cultural barriers in the film, though the film evokes many contemplative emotions of what it’s like being an adoptee learning about one’s own adoption–confusion, regret, love, unhappiness, relief–are all transfigured to universal emotions of the human experience. In many respects, this is what makes the film such a fully realized and courageous masterwork.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Expertly structured over the course of eight years of its magnetic protagonist, the narrative follows Freddie (Park-Jimin), a 25-year-old woman who was adopted by a French married couple when she was just a newborn, and of course, she holds no early memories of her birth country. She finds herself returning and idling her way through Korea in search of her culture, identity, and purpose. The film is effectively episodic as well, nearly divided into three segments of Freddie’s life that probably begins in 2014 and where the third chapter takes place during the COVID global pandemic. The film ends in a very poignant epilogue that felt soul crushing and equally liberating. The film begins with Freddie in a restaurant in Korea who has very high energy and appears to be in great spirits. She has a translator friend with her named Tea (Guka Han) who translates Korean to French for Freddie, and it’s the section of the film that is the most conventional and longest that nearly lasts an hour. Freddie ends up encouraging the whole bar to drink and sit together at a single table, where she learns from one of the patrons that it’s in the Korean culture to allow others to fill up your glass, it proves that your friends are looking after each other” as one patron says. Freddie ends up erratically having a one-night stand with one of the fellow restaurant patrons, who finds himself heartbroken once Freddie harshly repudiates his genuine feelings that he has for her.
Upon a night partying, Freddie finds herself at the adoption agency in Seoul. An assistant at the agency helps her track down her family. Her mother is difficult to track down, but telephone calls and even a telegram have been sent’. She also discovers that her parents are now divorced. However, Freddie’s biological father (Oh Kwang-Rok- Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) is quite eager to meet her. They get together during a very awkward, but heartbreaking dinner in a coastal town with her feather has a family that consists of his new wife, two daughters, and his mother. Freddie’s emotions are very contemplative in these complex scenes, where Freddie is certainly impacted by her origins and the more, she learns about her father through his translation by a family friend, the more resentment she holds inside. Her father admits that he finally told his new family about the adoption just days prior to Freddie’s arrival. You can sense he holds a lot of guilt for the adoption, as he dinks a lot of alcohol to hide his guilt. He’s desperate to connect with Freddie and even insists that she moves to Korea and that he will help her marry a Korean man, which only intensifies her feeling of abandonment.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
After the film’s impressive and compelling first stretch, the second section is every bit as compelling. The film abruptly cuts two years later, and it’s unclear when Freddie moved to Seoul, but she’s there and completely transformed. Instead of stringy hair and backpacker clothes, she has slicked-back hair and is dressed in a black high-collar jacket as if she just walked off an Olivia Assayas film. She has a drink with a French arms dealer (Louise-Do le Lencquesaing), who ends up offering her a job. She also has a surprise birthday smash with strobe lights, where she learns that her fellow French Korean adoptee friend still hasn’t made it to the agency to track down her biological parents. Both women are attempting to have fun at the party; Freddie even ends up wrestling a guy twice her size, and she takes him down and makes him submit to her playful chokehold; however, beneath all of the party’s playfulness, both women uncourteously hold an unspoken yearning for closure on their origins. The setting and decor change from daylight settings to a vampiric nighttime setting that captures Seoul’s nightlife. The nighttime color palette created by cinematographer Thomas Favel’s use of neon light holds a sci-fi ether that matches Freddie’s mental state, as she is in a constant state of transformation. Ji-min’s performance here deserves a lot of credit, as she expertly channels Freddy’s repressed anguish in a glorious performance that deserves greater recognition.
The film’s last act is every bit as harsh and equally moving. We leap forward into the narrative by five years, where Freddie has once again returned to Seoul, but this time for business. We see that she’s masked up with other characters during the COVID-pandemic. She is now an arms dealer and appears to have a very encouraging boyfriend named Maxime (Yoann Zimmer). In between business meetings, she is flattered that her father has continued to make an effort to stay connected with her, even remembering her birthdays and sending her birthday wishes by email. It’s the part of the segment that has more of a Sofia Coppola aesthetic to it, even having astonishing shots of Freddie in a cab entering Seoul as she observes outside of a cab window with buildings in the reflection that mirror the shots of Bob Harris entering Tokyo in the exquisite opening shots of Lost in Translation. During these scenes, she confesses to Maxime that the city is a toxic place for her, as another personal altercation begins to formulate. On this long journey, Chou’s adoption drama has merely transcended itself into something of a very complex and fascinating character study. Freddie’s appearance, career, relationships, and fashion may change, but her inner turmoil remains as she yearns for closure on her origins and roots.
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Return to Seoul is a journey about the human condition, and like the human condition, it remains intricate. The beauty of Chou’s films is that Seoul may be the birthplace of Freddie, but it’s also just as parodic and strange. We never see Freddie’s French roots outside of a phone call to her adopted mother. We never cut back to France, we aren’t given anymore exposition or insights. The film moves from moments of quiet isolation to moments of great joy. On many levels, Freddie is like a drifter in search of answers and an understanding of who she really is. The film allows us to experience her journey, one of curiosity and discontent. All around, this is a thoughtful, vulnerable character portrait that will deservedly find its audience in years to come.
Return to Seoul opens in limited theaters Friday, February 17th.
It opens in Detroit Sunday, March 5th at Cinema Detroit in part of Cinema Lamont’s Passport to the Oscars series.