Return to Seoul
by George Wolf
“Your birth name is Yeon-Hee. It means ‘docile’ and ‘joyous.'”
None of those things apply to Frédérique (Park Ji-min), whose name was changed after a French couple adopted baby Yeon-Hee and moved her from Seoul to Paris.
25 years later, she’s back.
In Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), the trip “home” becomes a catalyst for one woman’s search for identity, as director and co-writer Davy Chou crafts a relentlessly engrossing study of character and culture.
Now 25, “Freddie”‘s planned vacation in Japan is diverted by a typhoon, and she lands in Seoul “by surprise” – or so she tells her adoptive mother in France. But it isn’t long before Freddie is visiting the agency that handled her adoption, and reaching out to her birth parents to gauge interest in a meeting.
And from the minute we meet Freddie, she is purposefully upending the societal expectations of her heritage. When Freddie laughingly explains it away to her friend Tena (Guka Han) as “I’m French,” Tena quietly responds that Freddie is “also Korean.”
Freddie’s birth father and mother have very different reactions to her outreach. Chou moves the timeline incrementally forward, and Freddie’s two-week holiday becomes a new life in Seoul, one that’s fueled by restlessness and unrequited longing.
In her screen debut, Park is simply a revelation. Her experience as a visual artist clearly assists Park in realizing how to challenge the camera in a transfixing manner that implores us not to give up on her character. Freddie is carrying a soul-deep wound and pushes people away with a sometimes casual cruelty, but Park always grounds her with humanity and restraint.
As the narrative years go by, Chou adds flamboyance without seeming overly showy, and manages to toe a tricky line between singular characterization and a more universal comment on Korean adoptees.
Freddie begins to embody the typhoon that pushed her toward this journey of self, and Return to Seoul becomes an always defiant, sometimes bristling march to emotional release. And when that release comes, it is a rich and moving reward for a filmmaker, a performer, and all who choose to follow.