Return to Seoul is an odyssey, with a mercurial and alluring lead undertaking the greatest journey of all — self-discovery. Writer-director Davy Chou sets up a narrative that is not new, but still feels fresh and dynamic, especially given the complexities of the protagonist. Chou ultimately steps outside the normal tropes and seizes his opportunities to gather as much nuance and heartache from the main character’s, Freddie’s, ordeal. Rose colored glasses are nowhere to be seen on this set as Chou enjoys unleashing all of Freddie’s inner turmoil through her characterization. A character study is only as strong as how detailed a screenwriter is with their characters, and Chou rises to the challenge of wrestling with Freddie’s search for a home.
Freddie (Park Ji-min) is an adoptee from Korea who was raised in France. Having lost much of her connection to Korea due to time and distance, Freddie wants to return, but how does one return to a place that was never truly their home? Chou’s narrative is thought-provoking and without an easy conclusion. The story isn’t about Freddie’s journey for answers or a home. Rather, it’s an impactful example of what many adoptees (or people with non-traditional upbringings) do face, and that is accepting non-answers. Accepting reality for what it is and not for how it should or could have been. This is a challenge many have struggled with, and Chou beautifully navigates this through his writing and in capturing this journey.
How this story is visualized is just as relevant and essential as how Chou writes and presents the story. Cinematographer Thomas Favel and Chou carefully capture each chapter of Freddie’s journey to Korea with great precision. While restrained and subtle, the shifts in tone are notable, and most noticeable after the first two-year jump, which sees Freddie giving her best Irma Vep impression. With Favel’s moody lensing, Freddie’s slicked-back hair, vampire-like make-up, and her sleek black leather trench coat become an eye-popping spectacle. Chou’s narrative ambition is thoroughly realized through the visual language of the film.
The story is as ever-evolving as Freddie herself. The audience is led to believe that her problem is simply coming to terms with being adopted and, by extension, abandoned by her birth parents. However, just as her adoption story isn’t so easily defined, her personal arc is just the same. Freddie, whether she is aware of it or not, is undergoing a transformative journey that encompasses her unresolved feelings about her family and her desire to find a place she belongs. For this story to work, a tour de force performance is required. Someone with inexplicable star power who can carry the whole picture without breaking a sweat.
When Davy Chou found Park Ji-min, this writer is sure he felt the same way David O. Selznick felt when he met his Scarlet O’Hara in Vivien Leigh because Ji-min is a force of nature. She is as versatile as the greats who have worked for ages, yet she is a newcomer, Return to Seoul being her acting debut. She naturally settles into Freddie’s persona, which is explicitly volcanic at certain stages and, at other times, ice-cold. She is a chameleon, often uncertain of herself, but maneuvers with a quiet confidence that seems to stem from nowhere. She is wayward yet assured. Freddie’s complexities are what this movie hinges upon, and Ji-min is very much the reason why everything works.
Return to Seoul is a great movie that slipped through the cracks during the festival and awards season. Sure, it garnered attention, nominations, and a few wins, but the culture surrounding these events hardly allows space for films that do not conform to the status quo. Only a few are afforded the pleasure of being included, and the rest will simply survive off the words of critics who champion all great films regardless of their mainstream appeal. Return to Seoul deserves attention. It is a moving portrait of a troubled young woman facing what so many face during their lifetimes. Displacement, anxiety, and self-doubt are universal experiences, and they’re all beautifully captured through Chou’s vision and Ji-min’s stunning performance, which is among the best to be captured on camera.
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Return to Seoul is now playing in select theaters. The film is 119 minutes long and rated R for brief drug use, nudity, and language.