Adoption, as a process, has many intricacies, and one of them is the loopholes it leaves open for someone who has been adopted to later locate their birth parents. In Return to Seoul, 25-year-old Frédérique (Park Ji-Min), better known as Freddie, travels from France to South Korea. She arrives in Seoul, ostensibly on vacation, and visits the local adoption center where her file is quickly located. The center has a policy: send a telegram to her parents and wait to see whether they respond and have any interest in meeting the daughter they gave up twenty-five years earlier.
As soon as she comes to Seoul to check in to her hotel, Freddie bonds with Tena (Guka Han), who serves as more than a concierge for her. Because Tena’s mother teaches at a French school, she is fluent, and can translate for Freddie, who knows no Korean. As they socialize at a restaurant, Freddie invites multiple groups of people over to meet and talk, delighting in the ability to function as a social lubricant. That eagerness to be the center of attention and not contemplate the consequences of her actions reveals a deeper need for distraction, one that masks Freddie’s pain at having so little connection to the heritage in which she wasn’t raised. When she does meet her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok), she becomes overwhelmed and unhappy with the level of guilt-ridden love and care he tries to shower on her.
Freddie keeps her motivations and intentions to herself, initially indicating to her new friend and host that she has no interest in going to the adoption center but then making that her first stop. In a later conversation with her adoptive mother, she purports that she came to Seoul on a whim because weather canceled her existing flight to Japan and it was the only destination offered by her airline. But when her mother reminds her that they had always said they would go together, it becomes clear that Freddie keeps everyone at arm’s length, and she is also capable of demonstrating a special kind of cruelty when she wants to let someone in her life know that she finds their questions and involvement invasive.
Return to Seoul starts out in a stream-of-consciousness format but, midway through the film, takes several time jumps to check back in with Freddie in later years. She was born in Seoul but was raised in France from an early age, and her birth country has an appeal to her that she doesn’t want to admit but just can’t shake. It establishes that this isn’t a story of Freddie’s friendship with Tena but of her own search for herself. It’s very worthwhile and enlightening to see Freddie in such a different form after she has had time to process the encounters with her father and the apparent unwillingness of her mother to even meet her. She’s a chaotic character but one who is exceptionally interesting to watch.
Park makes her acting debut with this role, and it’s an astonishing turn. She wears an angry expression on her face for much of the film, unwilling to have others read how she is feeling but very able to show her discontent when the moment calls for it. She makes Freddie comfortable and relaxed with Tena and defiantly standoffish around her birth father, curious for a moment to hear about his history and his new life but easily reminded of all that she’s missed when things become too personal. It’s a film-carrying performance, one that becomes even more fascinating with the film’s time jumps, revealing an even more audacious and unfiltered side of an already unhinged character.
This is the second narrative feature film from writer-director Davy Chou, following 2016’s Diamond Island, another intimate and unconventional family reunion story. Chou keeps the story tightly focused on its electric protagonist, who could easily shape a different future for herself if she put in the effort and gave others a chance. Her unpredictability is at times agonizing, but it reveals an honesty and authenticity that in some stories like this is omitted in favor of more cinematic drama. Return to Seoul is committed to telling a compelling story about a flawed and fascinating person, and it succeeds well.
This review is from the 2022 New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release Return to Seoul in the U.S.