‘Return to Seoul’ review: Navigating identity’s shifting tides

On one of the first evenings of her seemingly impromptu trip to Seoul, Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a 25-year-old adoptee who was born in South Korea but grew up in France, explains the concept of sight-reading to a group of newbie acquaintances over plenty of Soju- bottles.

To play a score for the first time, musicians must – what Freddie once was – quickly assess the level of difficulty, danger if you will, and then dive in fearlessly. So Freddie also decides to walk the earth, throwing himself head-on into the unknown and later picking up the shattered pieces. It changes over the years and swims with the tide of change.

The impulsive young woman helms French-Cambodian screenwriter-director Davy Chou in Return to Seoul. Told with great stylistic exuberance, the electric and segmented drama brilliantly reflects on the transience of everything we know – about ourselves, about others and the world – and points to transformation as the one inevitable constant.

“There are signs everywhere that you don’t see, but you can learn to read them and recognize them when they appear,” Freddie explains to her drunken audience, before orchestrating conversations between strangers. Her instructions also give us guidance on how to engage with the story.

A stunning masterpiece that reveals itself unhurriedly, one permutation at a time, Chou’s third feature film is perhaps the only film this year where every single scene and every line of dialogue feels utterly essential. The richness in every detail and its unexpected repercussions over time make for a unique character study.

Four friends around a table full of bottles in a restaurant in the film "Return to Seoul."

Freddie (Park Ji-Min, left) visits friends in the movie Return to Seoul.

(Thomas Favel / Aurora Films / Sony Pictures Classics)

Encouraged by Tena (Guka Han), her new friend and guesthouse attendant, Freddie visits the Hammond Adoption Center to inquire about her birth parents. A tattered photo of herself as an infant in the arms of a woman who believes she is her birth mother opens the door to a possible meeting. But first her Korean father (Oh Kwang-rok) gets in touch.

When first meeting her paternal blood family, Freddie’s casual cool is sapped by the maelstrom of language barriers, cultural clashes and a mutual, if unspoken, desire for connection. From their time together, she learns the name they gave her, Yeon-Hee, and the difficult financial circumstances behind her adoption.

Initially, Tena, who speaks fluent French and is conversant with Korean sensibilities, intervenes to facilitate communication, sometimes defusing Freddie’s anger in translations, finding kinder words to convey her answers, or the heroine’s better angels in search of address compassion. In most cases, however, emotions do not need to be interpreted, such as when her grandmother is crying inconsolably, and in others English acts as a broken intermediate language.

There is no instant bond of kinship, just the burden of her father’s relationship expectations and his guilt, which manifest themselves in late-night drunken text messages that Freddie cannot fully understand but knows are tainted with pent-up regret. In truth, for now, the two are little more than an appendix in each other’s lives, a testament to what wasn’t.

From Park’s wonderfully expressive face, we can read that Freddie reflects not only on who she would have been had she stayed in South Korea, but also who she would have been had she not met these people. This fork in the road underscores that few aspects of our fundamental experiences are uniquely ours – even her past as a pianist, inherited from her adoptive parents.

A sensitive Tena can see through her facade of indifference and into her silent unraveling. And when Freddie rejects the advances of a casual sex partner, lured by her Western confidence, Tena asks her to consider the local perspective on romance for a moment.

Freddie replies, “But I’m French,” to which her patient pal replies, “You’re part Korean, too.” Is it possible for her to be both in the same life and camouflage across continents? Definitive. Could she ever become Yeon-Hee? A version of her maybe, but never the one her Korean relatives imagined themselves.

Halfway through Chou’s brilliantly written and elegantly photographed portrait, inspired by a personal friend, the narrative propels us two years and then five years into the future.

Freddie embodies chaos, now roaming the streets of Seoul with dark lipstick and the confidence of knowing his surroundings. But like everything else, this feeling is temporary. Later, she will once again feel out of place in a mostly foreign country. In the physical and tonal transitions that each jump involves, the magnitude of Park’s performance, one of breathtaking emotional versatility, begins to be felt.

Lost in an uninhibited laugh, a stern gaze or an energetic dance, the amazing actor embodies the process of relentless evolution. It’s hard to believe that Return to Seoul is her very first role in a feature film production. Park’s artistry of incarnation is beguiling both in the more subtle calibrations and when Freddie’s defenses take the spotlight with violent abandon, as if to remind the world that she is a part of them, an uncontrollable force that must keep moving in order to to survive.

For every question asked, Chou offers a surprising result. For example, in the last few chapters of the decade we follow Freddie, you can see her picking up a few phrases in Korean. Each newly learned word is a building block of a temporary bridge between her and her father. And while she’s changing, more often than we can predict, he’s slowly changing too.

Remarkably, music proves to be the most honest vehicle through which they can connect and the cinematic element that comes closest to Freddie’s metamorphoses. Chou’s handpicked cues and score by Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset acoustically map her inner discovery with an expertly deployed collection of upbeat, melancholy and captivating tracks.

With the cosmic waltz of what-if, why-not, and what-now rushing through Freddie, it’s clear that for those with interstitial identities, the wound of separation never fully heals. She can only control which parts of each to care for and what path to take with them.

At one point, a high-profile career opportunity takes advantage of her fragmented self-esteem as Freddie champions European interests in South Korea. And for a while, this further complicates her understanding of the layers that make her up. Luckily, a career change, a shorter haircut, or a new diet don’t define her essence; she can still read uninhibitedly from sight.

Worth multiple viewings, Return to Seoul recognizes that in our fixation on eternally certain resolutions, we fail to recognize that human existence is pausing and restarting, forgetting and remembering, hurting and forgiving, Learning and leaving behind involves . Nothing is definitely lost or gained permanently, but everything is always circulating within us as we contain all of the people we once were and all we never will be.

“Return to Seoul”

In English, French and Korean with English subtitles

Rated R for brief drug use, nudity, and speech

Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes

To play: Begins December 2 at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles for a week-long awards qualifying run; opens on February 17, 2023

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-12-01/review-return-to-seoul-davy-chou-park-ji-min ‘Return to Seoul’ review: Navigating identity’s shifting tides

Sarah Ridley

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