Now playing in UK cinemas, Cambodian-French filmmaker Davy Chou’s award-winning adoption drama, Return to Seoul, is a cathartic exploration of identity and one’s sense of place in the world.
Beginning in medias res, the story introduces Freddie, a 25-year-old Korean-French woman who has ended up in Seoul after a logistical mishap. Given that she does not speak Korean and this is her first time returning to the country since being sent away as a child to her adoptive French parents, Freddie checks into a guest house for international travellers. The receptionist Tena, who soon becomes Freddie’s friend/interpreter, greets her in Korean and, receiving no response, switches to English before seeing her passport and saying in surprise, “But you’re French!”
This two-minute title sequence foreshadows the dynamics that Freddie and the audience will have to navigate and ponder throughout Chou’s Cannes-premiering film. Different from recent films dealing with intercultural encounters such as The Farewell (2019), however, the focus of Return to Seoul leans closer to the personal than the cultural.
During a dinner scene early in the film, Tena’s friend politely stops Freddie from pouring soju for herself and explains that doing so is seen as “insulting” to both parties. Freddie, who will go on to explicitly state her French identity multiple times throughout, listens curiously and, without missing a beat, pours herself a shot and gulps it down anyway – Korean etiquette be damned. This confidence, however, is shaken immediately when her newfound friends ask why she does not intend to search for her biological parents.
Accompanied by a suspenseful and rhythmic score by Jérémie Arache and Christophe Musset, who also worked on Chou’s 2016 Cambodia-set feature Diamond Island, Freddie’s version of an answer to this question takes the shape of a prolonged distraction. She starts table-hopping, bringing three separate groups of young people at one table, and even arranging their seats for her desired effect so that she, perhaps along with some of the others, wakes up the next morning with a near stranger in bed.
Such routine comes easily to Freddie. She makes her way to the adoption agency the following day and what she originally planned to be a two-week stay ends up being the start of an eight-year saga. During this time, whenever her uneasy relationship with the presence and the absence of her birth parents becomes too much to handle emotionally, Freddie takes refuge in the corporeal, be it drinking, dancing, having sex, or even wrestling.
Chou’s first time jump to two years later swerves a bit close to a version of a (s)expat story, largely set in a seedy underground scene in downtown Seoul (a basement of a tattoo shop, literally). But its carefully crafted connection to the first as well as the following two chapters, set five and one years apart, respectively, and the terrific, absorbing performance of the cast keep it off the clichéd road.
Park Ji-min, a French sculptor and painter who left Korea with her family at the age of nine, dazzles as Freddie in her acting debut. Her poignant portrayal – name an actor with a more expressive chin than Park; I’ll wait – won her the Best New Performance honour at last year’s Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Particularly noteworthy among the supporting cast is Oh Kwang-rok (the suicidal man in Park Chan-wook’s 2003 mystery thriller Oldboy), whose embodiment of Freddie’s guilt-ridden father reminds one of Wu Renlin’s protagonist in the Berlinale-premiering Chinese drama Return to Dust (2022).
While language does not play as significant a role as one might expect in Chou’s film, it does hint at the destination or the lack thereof in Freddie’s soul-searching journey. From the recital in French of ‘Land of My Birth’, a Mongolian poem about the beauty of one’s native land, by Tena’s friend (who takes quite a lot of liberties with the translation) that virtually falls on deaf ears to two brief scenes where Freddie fails to communicate with older women, what is gained/added and lost/omitted in translation directs audiences to the film’s conclusion.
Chou ties up his story by not simply harking back to previous moments in the film, but by bringing them all together in a sincere, evocative fashion that is certainly enriched by repeat viewing. Indeed, Return to Seoul is an irresistible work that one is likely to return to again and again.
Written by Amarsanaa Battulga
View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, and art, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.