‘Return to Seoul’ Shows Us the Pain and Beauty of Being Alive
Perhaps one of the biggest questions that has inspired, plagued, and confounded humans across history is: “Who am I?” Through different periods (temporal and artistic) and with multitudinous media (from cave drawings to cinema) — and to varying results — we have looked within and without in search of an answer. Even those who aren’t artistically inclined, whether they are aware of it or not, ask themselves this question every day to some degree. What am I feeling? What should I wear? What will I eat?
These questions, large and small, are at the fore of Davy Chou’s sophomore feature, Return to Seoul, which tells the story of 25-year-old Freddie (Park Ji-min), a Korean adoptee from France, who returns to South Korea for the first time in search of her biological parents. There, she must navigate the simultaneous connection and disconnection to a culture and its people that feel, at once, familiar yet foreign. Underneath the cultural differences and language barriers, of course, lies the more tangled questions of self and of home that Freddie must also unpack.
Return to Seoul may seem like a quiet film at first, relishing in the pauses in conversations and savouring Freddie’s solitary, fish-out-of-water moments of contemplation, but, in truth, the film is deceptively devastating in its examination — to a forensic degree in some aspects — of its protagonist’s heart and soul. As Freddie endeavours to discover who she is, as a French/Korean woman/child/adoptee, blindly feeling her way through the pitch-black emotional maze we call life, we bear witness to just how messy being a person can be. Between her initial rejection of her biological father to her desperate need to connect to her biological mother, nothing is easy, and everything is painful.
Part of the reason why Return to Seoul is so effective (and, for that matter, affective) is because of Park’s towering performance. She is fearless in her portrayal of Freddie’s complicated, and at times contradictory, desires, and generous in her vulnerability. Even more astounding is the fact that Park is a first-time actor; the access and complexity she brings to each scene defies her inexperience. Emotionally violent and explosive one moment, then impossibly still the next, Park turns in one of the most riveting performances of the year so far.
In her orbit is a cast of instantly compelling characters, particularly Oh Kwang-rok, who plays Freddie’s biological father. Chou cleverly divides Return to Seoul into several narrative chunks, jumping forward in time between each, and, interestingly, Oh is the only other character aside from Freddie who is seen across multiple periods. Whereas Freddie is somewhat hesitant to open herself up to her father, he, on the other hand, throws himself fully into their relationship, for better and worse. Likewise, Oh plays Freddie’s father with total abandon, putting forth a sensitive performance that hones in on the grief and regret that comes with sacrifice. Though he doesn’t go into specifics as to why he gave Freddie up for adoption, the scars of that decision are evident in every glance.
Indeed, Chou favours sparse exposition, often throwing us into the middle of conversations or giving us the after in a scene and leaving it up to us to figure out the before. Other than a handful of cues — a new haircut, for instance, or a better grasp of Korean — Chou doesn’t waste time orienting us with each new Freddie. Here, Thomas Favel’s cinematography is paramount. At the beginning of the film, when Freddie is new to Korea and still figuring everything out, the camera is dynamic, loose, and free, opting for longer shots that zip through each space. Towards the end, as Freddie grows older, the camera becomes more still, the shots more carefully composed.
Of course, it’s an illusion: even though Freddie is more sure of herself in Korea, she’s ultimately no closer to discovering exactly who she is or what she wants. This is perhaps the most remarkable, frustrating, beautiful, and tragic thing about Return to Seoul. It presents a character in search of something, and then it traces growth, but, just as quickly and easily, it sweeps from under us any sense of security we might have — naively — established.
Masterfully and viscerally, Return to Seoul reminds us of how unpredictable, and therefore unknowable, life can be. The human endeavour to answer “Who am I?” is inherently paradoxical because, as Freddie learns, the answer is always changing. As such, there can be no answer. Only searching.
Return to Seoul will be in limited theatres on March 3.