Return to Seoul [Retour à Séoul]

Davy Chou
Release Year:
Length (mins):
France, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Romania, Cambodia, Qatar
Screening Date:
  • 19 Sep 2023
  • Categories:

    A head-strong young woman travels to Korea on a whim, the country she was born in before being adopted by a French couple. Once there, she decides to track down her biological parents, but her journey takes a surprising turn.

    What's this?
    F-Rated Silver

    Film Notes

    Review: Davy Chou’s exuberant ‘Return to Seoul’ ponders a young woman’s constant evolution.

    On one of the first nights of her seemingly impromptu trip to Seoul, Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a magnetic 25-year-old adoptee born in South Korea but raised in France, explains the concept of sight reading to a group of new acquaintances over copious bottles of soju.

    To play a score for the first time, musicians — which Freddie once was — must quickly gauge its degree of difficulty, the danger if you will, and then dive in fearlessly. That too is how Freddie chooses to walk the Earth, plunging into the unknown head on and picking up the shattered pieces later. Shape-shifting through the years, she rolls with the tide of change.

    The impulsive young woman commands French Cambodian writer-director Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul.” Told with great stylistic exuberance, the electric and segmented drama brilliantly muses on the impermanence of everything we know — about ourselves, about others and the world — and points to transformation as the only inevitable constant.

    “There are signs all over that you don’t see, but you can learn to read them and catch them when they appear,” Freddie tells her drunken audience before orchestrating conversations between strangers. Her instructions also provide guidance for us to engage with the story.

    A staggering masterwork that reveals itself unhurriedly, one permutation at a time, Chou’s third feature is perhaps the only film this year in which every single scene and every line of dialogue within them feel absolutely indispensable. The richness in every detail, and their unexpected ramifications over time, make for a one-of-a-kind character study.

    Encouraged by Tena (Guka Han), her new friend and guesthouse attendant, Freddie visits the Hammond Adoption Center to inquire about her biological parents. A tattered photo of herself as an infant in the arms of a woman she believes to be her birth mother opens the door to a possible meeting. But first, her Korean father (Oh Kwang-rok) comes forward.

    In her initial encounter with her paternal blood family, the swirl of language barriers, culture clashes and a mutual, if unspoken, eagerness for connection knocks the nonchalant coolness out of Freddie. From their time together, she discovers the name they gave her, Yeon-Hee, and the challenging financial circumstances behind her adoption.

    Initially, Tena, fluent in French and familiar with Korean sensibilities, intercedes to facilitate communication, sometimes defusing Freddie’s anger in translation, finding kinder words to convey her answers or appealing to the heroine’s better angels in search for compassion. In most instances, however, emotion needs no interpreting, like when her grandmother cries inconsolably, and in others, English operates as a broken intermediate language.

    There’s no instant bond of kinship, just the burden of her father’s expectations for a relationship and his guilt, manifested in late-night, inebriated text messages that Freddie cannot fully understand but knows are charged with pent-up regret. In truth, the two are, for now, not much more than an appendix in each other’s lives, a testament of what wasn’t.

    On Park’s miraculously expressive face, we can read that Freddie ponders in silence not only who she would have become had she stayed in South Korea, but also who she would have continued being had she not met these people. This fork in the road highlights that few aspects of our foundational experiences are solely ours — even her past as a pianist derived from her adoptive parents.

    A perceptive Tena can see through her façade of indifference and into her quiet unraveling. And as Freddie dismisses the advances of a casual sex partner, enticed by her Western self-assurance, Tena asks her to consider for a moment the local point of view on romance.

    Freddie responds, “But I’m French,” to which her patient pal retorts, “You’re also part Korean.” Is it possible for her to be both of these at once within the same lifetime, camouflaging across continents? Definitely. Could she ever become Yeon-Hee? Maybe a version of her, but never the one her Korean relatives may have imagined on their own.

    Halfway through Chou’s sublimely written and sleekly photographed portrait inspired by a personal friend, the narrative propels us two years and then five years into the future.

    Chaos embodied, Freddie now walks the streets of Seoul wearing dark lipstick and the confidence of familiarity with the surroundings. But like everything else, this feeling is temporary. Later, she will yet again feel out of place in a mostly foreign land. It’s in the physical and tonal transitions that each time jump brings about that the magnitude of Park’s performance, one of stunning emotional versatility, begins to set in.

    Tucked into an uninhibited laugh, a stern gaze or a vigorous dance, the astounding actor personifies the process of a relentless evolution. That “Return to Seoul” represents her first-ever role in a feature production is hard to believe. Park’s artistry of incarnation beguiles both in the subtler calibrations and when Freddie’s defense mechanisms take over the spotlight with violent abandon, as if to remind the world that she is a part of it, an uncontrollable force that must stay in motion to survive.

    For every posed question, Chou offers a surprising outcome. Latter chapters in the decade for which we follow Freddie, for example, see her picking up a few phrases in Korean. Every new word learned is a building block of a makeshift bridge between her and her father. And as she changes, more times than we can predict, he changes too, slowly.

    Notably, music emerges as the most honest vehicle for them to bond over, and as the cinematic element that most closely parallels Freddie’s metamorphoses. Chou’s chosen cues and Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s score sonically map her inner discovery with an expertly deployed collection of upbeat, melancholy and transfixing tracks.

    Via the cosmic waltz of what-ifs, why-nots, what-nows rushing through Freddie, it becomes clear that the wound of disconnection never fully heals for those with interstitial identities. She can only control what parts of each to nurture, and what path to walk onward with them.

    At one point, a high-stakes professional opportunity exploits her fragmented sense of self, with Freddie advocating for European interests in South Korea. And for a while, this further complicates her understanding of the layers that comprise her. Luckily, a career detour, a shorter haircut or a new diet don’t define her essence; she still knows how to sight-read without restraint.

    Worthy of multiple viewings, “Return to Seoul” establishes that in our fixation with resolutions, with the certainty of forever-afters, we fail to realize that human existence entails pausing and restarting, forgetting and remembering, hurting and forgiving, learning and leaving behind. Nothing is definitively lost nor permanently gained, but all is cycling within us, always, as we contain all the people we once were and all of those we’ll never be.

    BY CARLOS AGUILAR, Los Angeles Times, DEC. 1, 2022 

    ‘Return To Seoul’: Cannes Review.

    Born in Korea and adopted as a baby by a French couple, 25-year-old Freddie (Park Ji-min) decides on a whim to fly to Seoul, with the half-formed idea of reconnecting with her roots in this intriguing and mercurial character study. But it soon becomes clear that Freddie’s mission to learn about Korean culture is a two-way journey: she is an agent of chaos who delights in the collision between Korean propriety and her own taste for anarchy and inhibition. Over the course of nearly a decade and a series of awkward meetings with her biological father and, eventually, her mother, Freddie’s complicated relationship with the country of her birth, and her adopted status, evolves, but never fully resolves.

    This is French-Cambodian director Davy Chou’s second feature to screen at Cannes: his first, Diamond Island, showed in Critics’ Week in 2016, where it won the SACD Prize and went on to take several more awards on the festival circuit. Like its central character, this film is unconventional, and at times abrasive, but it has a seductive, searching quality and a swell of melancholy which makes for an engaging, if unpredictable journey. Further festival screenings are likely, and this is a picture which, with astute marketing, could connect with a younger arthouse audience. Sony Pictures Classics acquired all rights in North America, Latin America, Middle East, Australia, and New Zealand in advance of the film’s Cannes premiere.

    A lot rests on the shoulders of non-professional actress Park, who delivers in spades. She fully inhabits the skin of Freddie, a free spirit who hides her vulnerability and anger behind a derisive smile and layers of rabble-rousing provocation. She gets her own musical motif, a snaking rhythm played on bass and drums, which sounds as though it was borrowed from post punk goth rockers Bauhaus and positions Freddie as a creature who prefers to play at night. There is a magnetism to the character which attracts people, as well as mayhem – she has no sooner checked into her Seoul guest house before she has struck up a friendship with Tena (Guka Han), a demure hotel worker who speaks French fluently but struggles to understand Freddie’s appetite for disorder. 

    Almost by accident, Freddie contacts the agency which organised her placement with her adoptive family. She learns that her original name translates, somewhat ironically, as “docile and joyous” and that her father (Oh Kwang-rok) and his family are eager to meet her. It’s not an entirely harmonious encounter. Freddie simmers and sulks, her father “spews sorrow”. “It’s the way of Korean men,” explains Tena.

    The structure of the film can feel a little disjointed and disorientating, jumping forward several years at a time and finding Freddie’s identity shifting markedly with each encounter. She is a twenty-something party girl, a pilled-up club kid with a tattoo artist boyfriend, a steely businesswoman in the process of being head-hunted by an arms dealership, a hiker communing with the wilder fringes of the land. But while it takes some getting used to, this interrupted timeline works rather well, capturing the false starts of Freddie’s identity and a life which can’t quite move past the fact of her adoption.

    BY WENDY IDE, Screen Daily, 22 MAY 2022.

    What you thought about Return to Seoul [Retour à Séoul]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    9 (17%) 25 (48%) 17 (33%) 0 (0%) 1 (2%)
    Total Number of Responses: 52
    Film Score (0-5): 3.79

    Collated Response Comments

    110 members and guests attended the screening of Return to Seoul. 52 of you provided responses which is a 47% response rate. This is an excellent result… thank you all for your contributions which run to 5 pages and are all collected below.

    Your responses give the film a rating of 3.79.

    “Intensely sad and yet uplifting and life affirming too”

    "An excellent showing of the turmoil experienced by an adoptee returning to their homeland. A troubled soul (no pun intended) despite what appears to be her loving upbringing. I thought it was important to show Freddie at various staged of development. Through her internal struggle, both personal - in terms of who am I, but also where do I belong, and how this influenced her integration into Korean life as well as her relationship with her father and those around her. Also, the difficulties experienced by the father and his inability to cope initially was realistic and well shown. The mother not wanting to make contact was also realistic and was played out in the inability of Freddie to make contact at the end. The music in her heart came through as a consistent theme coming to a vocal point as she played the piano at the end. The acting was excellent”.

    “Promised more than it delivered”.

    “Poignant but too long”.

    “Awful, no real story just following a depressed, egomaniac and watching her treat people terribly and never learn from her mistakes or show any compassion for anyone. A depressing watch. Got bored”.

    “Whilst clearly representing the stop-go nature of a young person trying to find their way in life, and despite the most impressive performance by the non-professional lead, I did not find this film either easy to follow or entertaining. Maybe a second viewing will bring more rewards”.

    “Overall, I have rated as good. Slightly too long and slow in places but a strong performance from Park Ji-Min as the unlikeable lead, Freddie. A complex character who was no doubt affected by her early adoption and move to a faraway country. Sad and ironic that she rejected the parent who wanted to be part of her life and fixated on the one who clearly didn't. This was reflected in her other relationships, as she seemed to treat anyone who got close to her badly. Thanks”.

    “Good insight into the effects on an individual who is adopted and then wants to find out more about her biological family. Feel the director tried to pack too much into the film, making it disjointed in parts. Having just seen Past Lives, I get the impression the Korean style is slow and stately but whereas it worked in Past Lives, not so good in Return to Seoul”.

    “If you were adopted by a family of a different race and whisked half way around the globe, then you returned to the nation of your birth only to discover you recognise and connect with none of it, exactly how rootless, rudderless and angry with the world would you be? A lachrymose weakling of a father and a mother who mutely provides no answer as to why she was rejected into the bargain and perhaps Freddie's absence of sense of self, desperation to find any secure foothold in life and random acting out become explicable. It is all played out in Park Ji-Min's extraordinary face. From wicked grin to basilisk eyes and stubborn acceptance as she absorbs another hit it's an astonishing performance, especially from an untrained actor. The uneven tempo and gear crashing pace changes coupled with uncomfortable soundscape; scratchy silence to thumping techno add the tonal discomfort. I assume the tune her father plays her is the one she hears in her head and plays at the end. A tiny anchor in a tsunami of a life. Representing hope and the beginning of a safe path I assume but it is an oddly lyrical note in an otherwise bruising film”.

    “A very good portrait of a loss and closure of a mother/daughter relationship”.

    “Didn’t really understand the end. No doubt IMDB will explain”.

    “I liked the soundtrack and cinematic backdrop. The complicated journey of the central character to seek her identity was interesting. This is an introspective, thoughtful film with long silences. However, I couldn't warm to the rather sulky, self-involved lead. Her face rarely portrayed emotion. Overall, I found it interesting and closely observed. But rather slow perhaps the subtle nuances of performance were lost on me!!

    “The film Return to Seoul was artistically produced and filmed however I didn't find much substance in the storyline. The character acted weird from the beginning and there were no redeeming qualities about her, she was cruel to everyone who surrounded her and didn't learn any lessons or grow into a better person by the movie. Instead, she became even more egotistical and self-centred. I wonder what the message of the movie was as there seemed to be no point the movie was trying to make? I also found the movie dragged on too long and certain scenes could have been shortened by the editors. My main feedback comment is that it would be nice for Michael to open a discussion about what people thought of a film after the film ends. Even without the presence of a director or speaker I would be interested for the microphone to be passed around and for members of the audience to share their reflections on the films. Otherwise, it seems a bit of an anti-climax, watching the film and leaving immediately without any discussion”.

    “Tedious, not a particularly interesting story line and a mystery finale”.

    “Didn't "enjoy" it really, but was riveted by its sadness and rawness; often a hard watch at times. Thought Ji-Min excelled (good for anon-professional actor) as Freddie starting as a 25-year-old student ending as a 33-year-old arms dealer, a job reflecting the various ferocious and furious smiling faces against the world. Re-inventions of her character as she meets her father, lovers, are evident then culminates in finding her mother -the catharsis of her life. The images of Seoul seemed to reflect her life; at turns brash, overwhelmingly bright, then dark, noisy and slightly scary. Thought the film's music also reflected the variations of mood; her father's tune for her night club garage and then the contemplative last piece. Life's unpredictability threads through the film so we don't quite know what to expect. Made me rethink what I thought I knew about Korea; Freddie's world is uncertain but she dives in time and again. Quite heroic really. A film well worth seeing, though”.

    “It may be a matter of personal preference, but the story itself did not personally resonate with me, primarily due to the unsympathetic portrayal of the protagonist. The actress delivered a great performance, but I couldn't help but feel that the narrative could have been more compelling had it been presented differently, perhaps with additional context. (The historical background provided did not seem to fully explain the protagonist's situation, especially considering her age. I assumed that her parents and their family suffered trauma after the war ended in 1953, but this could have been explored more to add depth to the story.) The deliberate omission of the mother's perspective left me wondering whether her absence was an act of love or disregard, which could have significantly influenced the dynamics of the narrative.

    There were several elements I appreciated, such as the use of light and darkness, the attention to visual details (including makeup, settings, and costumes), and the effective integration of music. The contrast between the melancholic Korean music from the 1970s? (representing the past) and the energetic French music as an expression of her identity was effective. The father's gentle communication of love and emotion through his own compositions was charming. The use of Bach's 'Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ' (I call to You, Lord Jesus Christ) during the scene where she sight-reads a piano piece in the final act was poignant. Considering the protagonist's character, however, it is difficult to imagine her as a person who would embrace religion (or even love), but it raises the question of whether she sought solace in the love of God after losing the love of her mother. Could the stumble during the sight-reading symbolically represent her ongoing, struggling quest for the meaning of love and life?

    It remains disheartening to think that some people, represented by Freddie, cannot recognise the love they already have (disregard it) and instead desperately seek what they feel is missing. Recognising and appreciating what we have is crucial to avoiding family discord (and any tragic human situation including environmental issues and war), but it did not seem to be the theme of the film, and I felt a little lost as it ended. (But if the movie intended to take us into the protagonist's lost circumstances, then it was successful!) All in all, it was thought-provoking, so thank you”.

    “A bit too long for me and a disappointing ending. Great acting performances”.

    “Thought provoking although quite slow moving. Didn't make me want to visit South Korea”.

    “A realistic recognition of the complications of adopted children finding birth parents”.

    “Very intense and thought provoking. I was happy it didn't have a happy ending.... over 200k kids were put up for adoption!! and I'm sure many of them didn't have happy endings”.

    “Interesting film but a bit slower than what may have been needed for the storyline. What I'm left with is the weight of the guilt felt by the biological father (and his family) who gave Freddie away when her biological mother left him; and the sadness apparent in Freddie herself. Also, the clash of cultures, the pull of her native country and finally the tears finally spilling out when Freddie meets her biological mother. But no uplift from that apart from a muted sense of Freddie being more at home in herself”.

    “I liked some of the filming but was completely baffled by the storyline”.

    “I haven’t seen a film this good in a vey long time. Beautiful”.

    “Wonderful and amazing photography and story with deep insight. Very respectful. Thank you, team, for this”.

    “Pain, alienation, despair in pursuit of identity. Powerful …….”

    “A very interesting and thought-provoking film- especially about interracial adoptions”.

    “Very affecting. Felt I understood a little bit of Korean culture as a result”.

    “A little too depressing for my taste…. not a likeable character – I felt that the whole family’s thought patterns are causing tragic consequences”.

    “Hard to know what to make of this film. Realise how difficult it would be to have any connection with both parents in such a different culture – ultimatley sad for her”.

    “Very good but I need to think about some of the …. bits”.

    “Many sudden, unexpected changes of direction. Emotionally draining. Hard to watch for any adoptees or parents who have adopted”.

    “Well filmed but slow and bleak”.

    “Depressing and I didn’t like the main character. Didn’t like any of them except Tena”.

    “Felt very slow even for Oriental film making. Lost pace”.

    “Very good in parts but the ending was hopeless!!!”

    “Strong start, I loved the cinematography but it dragged and got lost halfway through”.

    “I found the film rather confusing and the main character compelling but unsympathetic”.

    “The languid pace and slow development were helped by compelling characters, though the narrative jumps were frustrating”.

    “Good acting and moving discovery”.

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