Returning to South Korea after being adopted in France as a baby, Freddie (Park Ji-min) embarks on an epic journey of self discovery and reinvention. His third feature, Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul is a visceral, astonishingly assured work, compelling, rarely predictable, and vital.
“I could erase you from my life with a snap of my finger”, Freddie tells a close companion who has helped her navigate her journey through the Korean capital. It is a cold, cruel thing to say, an act that Freddie is frequently prone to. But as we are to learn, the ease with which she dismisses others reveals more about how she sees herself than those around her. To say, ‘I could erase you’ is another way of saying, ‘I could erase our connection’, which really means, ‘I could erase that part of myself that is connected to you’. And so Freddie’s arc in Return to Seoul is a process of erasure and redefinition, shedding egos like old skins to reveal new ones underneath.
Freddie’s motivations rarely follow neat patterns of logic, yet their contradictions are always psychologically recognisable. Tracking down the agency that arranged her adoption, she arrives with no documentation and scant information, with little apparent understanding of how the agency worker might be able to find out who or where her birth parents are.
When they do track down her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok), she is cold and distant with him, letting her friend and interpreter, Tena (Guka Han) do the emotional heavy lifting. It’s a seemingly bizarre pattern of behaviour, to find one’s long lost father only to reject their affection, and yet Park breathes psychological reality into Freddie’s behaviour.
If Return to Seoul is about the intersections between family, identity, and emotional connection, then Freddie’s journey is one of those intersections being broken down and rebuilt. While her birth family are shot in frame as one, we often cut away to Freddie alone, sat in the backseat of her birth father’s car or awkwardly enduring grace at the dinner table. These sequences often involve discussions of the past or plans for the future; Freddie seems to have little interest in either.
Several time jumps in the film see her appearance radically alter, the most striking being an incredible leather coat outfit that is equal parts Lady Vengeance and Blade Runner. In the film’s first segment, Freddie insists that she is only in Korea for a few days and that she may never return, yet in the following seven years she continues to find herself in Seoul.
It’s never fully clear whether Freddie has returned to France in the intervening years, but it’s important that we don’t see it if she has. A single, tense video call with her French mother is all we see of her adoptive parents: their presence would provide some connective tissue for the narrative to stitch together; their absence thus fragments it and Freddie. Return to Seoul is fundamentally a film of fragments, a synecdoche of life. Its enigmatic, quietly elegiac ending paradoxically frustrates and satisfies the urge for resolution, ultimately offering Freddie not as a broken person put back together, but one at peace with being fractured.