Return to Seoul – Korean Film Festival 2022 – Film Review

Dreamy and poetic, Return to Seoul confronts the reality of international adoption via a French young woman’s journey to South Korea to locate her biological parents. It is a mesmerising, poignant tale, with a captivating lead performance, infused with innovative editing combined with a myriad of emotions that transcend the stereotypical road trip film obsessed with self-discovery. Based on the real life experience of director Davy Chou’s friend, the film traverses cultural differences, family ties, lack of communication and discovering one’s identity when Freddie leaves France bound for a first time visit to her birthplace in South Korea in a quest for meaning and healing within her life.

International adoption has remained a polarising and political subject. There have been reports of several generations of adopted children returning to South Korea as adults. Chou’s delicate direction concerning Freddie’s adoption thereby emphasises those elements of state intervention. Chou may be making an implied political statement but in so doing amplifies the film’s emotional stakes. Freddie, seemingly unwittingly, approaches an adoption agency suggested by acquaintances on her South Korean trip. Such action subtly unveils the connections between international adoptions and the conflict between North and South Korea as many families relied on the adoption of their young during those moments of strife. Return to Seoul examines the impact of such practice over 8 years, within its mood-altering three chapters, illustrating not only Freddie’s journey, with obvious cultural clashes, but also the lingering changes for a family torn apart by circumstance.

Freddie’s journey enables insight to be gleaned of draconian South Korean adoption agency policies to safeguard both the adopted child and the biological parents should future contact be sought. Chou exposes the unemotional practice of using telegrams for communication and the ensuing restrictions should the initial contact be refused by the parents. It is thus a poignant and heart-rending moment watching Freddie’s hope build up, have the tissues nearby, with emotional close ups on an expressive Park Ji-Min as Freddie. Chou’s bold choice to subvert expectations as to which parent, if any, would wish to acknowledge Freddie as their child, is emotionally impactful. The nuance displayed in such filming approach, with focus on Freddie’s hands as she nervously awaits news, will engage audiences further within such an emotionally wrought process.

Chou produces further surprises by exploring the notion of collective guilt from the remaining extended family members, in an intimate portrait rarely portrayed onscreen. The pain and anguish on the faces of those elderly family members is difficult to digest, resulting in a touching scene between Freddie and her grandmother being especially tear jerking. Similar characters, in other films, may have been vilified but Chou reveals sufficient empathetic context. Return to Seoul thus shines the spotlight on both a micro and macro level with this dissection of generational trauma following an adoption. As such, a sense of abandonment permeates Return to Seoul like a heavy cloud of regret and shame. Stellar performances from renowned actor Oh Kwang-Rok, as Freddie’s Korean father, and the extended family provide no escape from the film’s heart-wrenching nature.

Park Ji-Min as Freddie in Return to Seoul

Freddie may have been seeking simple solutions in Korea instead of the complex narrative that Chou delivers but this accentuates the film’s compelling nature. Chou presents a version of adoption to challenge expectations without hesitating to grasp the opportunity to illustrate the multiple facets of Freddie’s personality between the 3 chapters’ passage of time. Her Korean father heavily suffers from the guilt of abandoning Freddie and is melancholic, with an inability to express his emotions fully. As such, a portrait of a broken man, who has the desperate urge to cling on to Freddie, during her time in Korea, and perhaps over compensate for the past, is slowly unveiled.

In a tour de force performance from Ji-Min, Freddie asserts her needs, as a complex French woman in a departure from traditional Korean films. She does not speak Korean, refuses to be submissive and resists obeying the Korean rituals and expectations of a woman. Return to Seoul powerfully investigates these conflicting cultural notions of freedom, which international adoptions bring to the fore. The perceived lack of freedom for women within South Korean traditional society is therefore laid bare. The rebellious Freddie denounces such practices in refusing to be the dutiful daughter or girlfriend emphasising that the Korean men merely wish to domesticate her, and she is correct. Chou effectively illustrates this patriarchal need to control through the various letters Freddie receives from her Korean father, the song that he has composed and insists that she listens to and a poem that a would be suitor recites to her.

However, Chou’s penchant to create emotional resonance by music and literary devices further connects these elements. Chou employs music to chart the highs and lows of the family’s emotions, during stilted family dinners, and there is a notably mesmerising scene of Freddie frenetically dancing solo to pulsating music in a bar. Freddie may be conventional and therefore not easily likeable, but there is no denying the onscreen magnetic presence of Ji-Min who dominates all of her scenes. This may be her first time role but the quality of her performance adds depth to some otherwise confusing non-linear directional choices.

Return to Seoul is a quietly dramatic odyssey through South Korean traditions, of course there is lots of soju drinking plus Korean BBQ, and an emotional character study exploring archaic international adoption practices. Chou’s decision to film affecting family scenes juxtaposed with Seoul’s neon drenched locations of its underground scene is an interesting choice that may be reflective of South Korea’s existing contrast as a country straddling both the traditional and modern worlds. One thing that is certain in Chou’s impressive, uniquely humane story is Ji-Min’s talent to undertake challenging roles and elicit both sympathy and disdain. Ji-Min has clearly thrived under Chou’s directorial command and it will therefore be exciting to discover more of her incredible acting range in the future.

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