Return to Seoul Review: A Bracing, Ambiguous Portrait of a Restless Spirit

Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul quickly blooms as a study in contrasts, sublimely juxtaposing character and culture.

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Return to Seoul
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul hinges on a young French-raised woman, Freddie (Park Ji-min), who returns to her native South Korea for the first time since she was adopted there as an infant. But her search for her parents or any kind of connection to Korean identity is ultimately less important than her quest to uncover whoever she’s meant to be.

The film rivets your attention largely because of the contradictions that Freddie embodies. For all her wandering and searching across this journey of discovery, she seems fully formed from the moment we catch a glimpse of her. A no-boundaries spirit with a habit of breaking down people’s defenses in order to draw them close, only to then abandon them when convenient or the mood strikes her, Freddie shows up in Seoul seemingly on a whim and launches into a chaotic voyage of self-discovery with little regard for the collateral damage.

Chou first introduces Freddie in tight, inquisitive close-up. He repeatedly homes in on her face throughout the film’s four sections, seeking out the emotions that she keeps hidden behind a roster of looks that range from an almost predatory curiosity to half-amused contempt. Both modes are on display in this initial scene, wherein Freddie studies Tena (Guka Han), the mild-mannered clerk at the hostel she’s staying at, with a probing fervency. Almost immediately, Freddie sucks Tena into her orbit as a combination tour guide, translator, and friend. It’s clear from the start that this relationship, and the ones that spring off of it, is doomed to fail, given Freddie’s almost pugnacious desire to push buttons and stir up trouble.

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Despite claiming that her past is of little interest, Freddie shows up at the center where she was adopted to investigate her birth parents. Discovering that they’re now separated and that only her father (Oh Kwang-rok) wants to see her, she takes an ill-fated trip to the small town where he and his new family live. It’s an awkward visit due to the language barrier, the sullen Freddie’s resentment, and her father’s alcohol-sodden guilt. It’s here that Return to Seoul begins to truly bloom as a study in contrasts, as it sublimely juxtaposes character and culture. The long dead silences of the family reunion are nonexistent in Seoul, where Freddie dances in hip LP bars with a desperate abandon, slamming shots of soju and grabbing on to new friends and sexual partners. Seething or sabotaging, she’s feeding the same pain of abandonment.

The film’s second section is set two years later, after Freddie has apparently moved to Seoul and transformed herself into a cross-cultural consultant who seems equally at home in corporate settings and the tattooed underground demimonde. Instead of drab backpacker clothes and careless hair, she now favors a slicked-back do, high-collar coat, and imperious air that makes her look like a Blade Runner replicant on the run. This section’s high hipster urbanity features her having pre-hookup cocktails with a French arms dealer (Louise-Do de Lencquesaing), who’s impressed enough by her gunmetal swagger to offer her a job, and a blowout, strobe-lit rager of a surprise birthday bash that’s capped by her playfully tackling a bruiser twice her size. She’s the life of the party even when she doesn’t want to be there.

The following sections feature different iterations of Freddie’s transformations spread over several more years. But the precision of Ji-min’s performance makes clear that despite all those surface changes, the woman is still fraught with inner turmoil. Given Freddie’s restless spirit, insistence on not looking back, and appetite for experience, Return to Seoul will inevitably be compared to Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World.

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But while Trier’s film is an all-encompassing portrait of a woman’s journey through different stages of her life, Return to Seoul is, almost paradoxically, more confrontational and willing to keep things to itself. Except for a brief video call with Freddie’s adopted mother, we see nothing of her life back in France. There are no sudden soliloquies or moments of insight. The ambiguous ending—a more stolid Freddie, alone, still journeying, plinking out a tune on the piano—doesn’t seem to resolve much. But there’s an honesty to this—not showing us anything more than Freddie understands herself—that’s enticing rather than distancing. It puts the viewer in the same boat as her, and just as curious about who she will be next.

Score: 
 Cast: Park Ji-min, Guka Han, Oh Kwang-rok, Louise-Do de Lencquesaing, Yoann Zimmer  Director: Davy Chou  Screenwriter: Davy Chou  Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics  Running Time: 115 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2022

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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