Return to Seoul
Park Ji-Min stars as Freddie in Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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There is a scene early in Return to Seoul where it almost sounds as if “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus is playing on the soundtrack. It is an audacious needle drop, since the song arguably jump-started goth rock, and the context of the scene barely involves goth’s doomy aesthetic. But the music continues, and instead of Peter Murphy’s vocals, there is a swell of strings that changes the music’s meaning entirely. This cocktail of the familiar and the new is central to writer-director Davy Chou’s new film, a drama about identity and assimilation that—in crucial ways—never forgets there are certain behaviors we cannot change, no matter where we call home. Few films feel this alive, or have a protagonist this fully realized.

In a remarkable debut performance, Park Ji-Min plays Freddie, a young woman from France who visits Seoul almost on an impulse. Freddie was born in South Korea, but she is an outsider; adopted in France, she does not speak the language and her Westernized behavior makes her stand out even further. She strikes up a friendship with Tena (Guka Han), a young hotel worker who speaks fluent French, and together they try to locate Freddie’s birth parents. 

Things do not go as planned: Her father (Oh Kwang-rok) is a sentimental drunk who oversteps Freddie’s boundaries, while her mother does not consent to being contacted. At one point, Freddie almost shakes off the disappointment from her trip in a dance sequence, where she commands the floor in a mix of defiance and youthful bravado. Chou films this scene like a music video that announces Park as a major talent.

After Freddie’s two-week visit draws to a close, Chou does something audacious. He flashes forward several years: Freddie is no longer a backpacking young traveler, but a glamorous, confident woman. She has returned to South Korea, though she has hardly assimilated the way her biological father wanted. Return to Seoul includes several flash-forwards, roughly covering most of Freddie’s 20s and 30s, with each new section including moments of intrigue and surprise. In a way, the film is a little like Barry Jenkins’ 2016 classic Moonlight, insofar that viewers must use their imagination to understand how Freddie evolved from one snapshot to another. This kind of storytelling is a shrewd way to engage our imagination and get a better sense of Freddie’s nature.

Unlike most coming-of-age dramas, Return to Seoul resists the impulse to let Freddie find wisdom easily. She remains obstinate and rebellious, well beyond the film’s first chapter. This clash between expectations—both ours and the ones other characters have for her—and what Freddie actually wants helps give Return to Seoul the illusion of spontaneity. Her mix of progress and setbacks are uncommonly lifelike. The tenor and spirit of the dialogue further advances the psychological complexity of her inward journey. When Freddie gets older, she internalizes the kind of lashing out she relished at a younger age, as if wisdom or experience is a way to nurture her impulses. In one provocative scene she meets André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), an older Frenchman, on a hookup app. Their dialogue is a sexy mix of seduction and negotiation, all while André tries to learn more about his companion from a respectful distance. More importantly, the scene underscores an important point: Despite the posturing, Freddie still feels like an outcast, not quite belonging in Korea or France.

In addition to the punk-chic nightclubs and restaurants Freddie prefers, the adoption center she visits more than once is another important setting. The bureaucrats at the center attempt to be respectful, honoring her needs and those of her biological parents, which leads to moments of pain and frustration for the protagonist. She is not ready for the surprises, big and small, she faces. She carries a photograph of herself as a baby with an older woman, for example, assuming the woman is her mother, only to discover it’s a stranger from the adoption agency. What does this mean about who she is? Is she free to invent herself further, or does her journey require more digging before she can find her answer? Return to Seoul steadfastly refuses easy answers to these questions, and instead shows how self-discovery can lead Freddie in circles, or toward self-destruction.

It is intriguing how this film contrasts from Broker, another film set in South Korea with adoption central to its plot. Broker is the gentler film, an attempt to show that forgiveness and family can involve mutual understanding, not a biological mandate. Return to Seoul has more of an edge to it, since individualism means Freddie must live on her terms, no matter how painful or surprising that might be. Chou’s filmmaking is a good match for the material, using stylized cinematography and quick cutting to put us in Freddie’s mindset, or observing her from a distance when he wants us curious about what she must think or feel.

Bittersweet and understated, the final minutes strike hard-earned moments of ephemeral happiness, and also disappointment. We care about Freddie and get some sense she’ll probably be alright, almost like we might care for our actual friends, which is another way of saying Return to Seoul is the year’s first great film.

Return to Seoul opens at Landmark E Street Cinema and Angelika Mosaic on Feb. 25.