Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Return to Seoul (2022) dir. Davy Chou

A fighter's spirit against identity until the last round



“She has a typical Korean face, doesn’t she?” a stranger at a restaurant shares about Freddie (Park Ji-min) in Return to Seoul. “From ancient, ancestral Korea,” another person chimes in. They speak Korean in front of Freddie, a French-raised adoptee who doesn’t speak the language. When the comment is translated to her, Freddie thanks the first stranger in Korean. The stranger politely nods before turning away to make a slightly disgusted face.

Racial sameness cannot overcome lifelong-integrated culture. If I were to ask my friends how they can tell where an Asian is from, I’d have to sit down. Asking for the person’s name or to hear their accent is too easy, so they might answer it like they’re drill instructors. Look at how they hold your gaze. See what brand of sneakers they’re wearing. Look at how their shirt falls on their torso. See how they place their hands when they sit. Forget my friends — the pick-apart ethnic calculation is practiced by my parents, my parents’ ancestors, and the dynasties before them. While it is not always particularly kind to do, mental categorization is a thing of human nature. But for those whose identities have been recently commingled by the diaspora, being able to deduce one’s origins like the Sherlock of socialization and blood ties seems like a pursuit of cultural retention that feels both unifying and ostracizing. It’s why a person might find the Kevin Nguyen memes funny and that stranger’s facial reaction harmful.

On a whim, 25-year-old Freddie visits Seoul to track her biological parents. Despite the otherness that she experiences there, Freddie steamrolls right through any notion of brokenness. Perhaps anticipating a type of alienation (and maybe even the audience’s expectations that stitching identities together can be a fraught story), Freddie shares in the beginning that sight-reading is the ability to “analyze the music in one glance, evaluate the danger, and jump in” right before she grabs a bunch of strangers in a restaurant to drink together at a table. Throughout the movie, Freddie refuses to appear sad, choosing the reactive spontaneity without an anchor to consequence. With the help of the adoption center, who can send telegrams to her biological parents if permitted, Freddie treks to rural Gunsan to meet her father (Oh Kwang-rok).


Without saying a word, I can walk into a family gathering and older relatives can just tell that I was raised on high fructose corn syrup. There is the impression that you emit and the impression imposed by others. At Gunsan, Freddie is bombarded by a hailstorm of guilt, pity, and hospitality. At night, her grandmother cries in prayer, combing her hands through an awake Freddie’s hair. Her father sends drunk texts of remorse at night, even when he is asked to stop. At the end of her visit, Freddie curtly waves goodbye before hopping in a taxi without looking back. Later, she tells her friend Tena (Guka Han), a hotel employee that assists with the Korean-French translations, to send insulting clapbacks to her father’s messages and openly rejects a love interest’s gift by fibbing about a boyfriend back home and flirting with the house DJ. “You’re a very sad person,” Tena tells her.

Though the rationale is outwardly clear, it’s unclear what Freddie is looking for. Resolution seems out of the picture. Return to Seoul has a few flash-forwards to an older Freddie back in South Korea, finding herself in an emotional pitfall again before climbing out in a manic state of abandon. Her scrambles seem ceaseless, but in disengaging with finding Freddie’s purpose, we find her actions more engaging because there is no predictable way how it’ll end. Even in a literal plot sense: in one time lapse, Freddie is on a date with an older French arms dealer. In the next time jump, she is a sales rep for nuclear weapons (in layperson terminology). If I were to search deep behind her newfound career (and her biological father’s surprise, though I’m sure it’s a jawdropper for anyone), it might pertain to how the Korean War, dictated by heavy warfare, had heavily contributed to the peak of transnational adoption in the 1970s and 1980s.

But it also doesn’t have to be deeper than presented. Tena’s words to Freddie sufficiently vibrate the strings that pull Freddie back to the country, a place that she learns to tailor however she deems fits. She learns the language, she picks up a paramour, but her feet don’t stay firm to the ground. If someone were to sight-read this movie, one’d expect Freddie to find herself swimming to her neck in lost despair. But her emotional jumbling and mood-shifting impulses, in conjunction with composers Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s buzzy electronic tracks, create a character that disrupts the common portrayal of cultural and familial disconnection. Adoptee stories are not easy to nail down (Justin Chon still endured criticism by adoption organizations for Blue Bayou despite interviewing several deportees; Broker‘s characters play it safe by keeping their operations to domestic adoption), but Chou tunes Freddie’s story by making it just that: Freddie’s story. First-time actress Park Ji-min readily delivers each blunt blow, committed to her character’s spirit at the sacrifice of chaemyoun — the social concept of “face” that causes Freddie’s translators to pause before rewording her angry responses, even if it’s not their words. Freddie isn’t meant to please, and sometimes not empathize with at times, but it would be useless to watch Return to Seoul if the character fell in that same pitfall again and again. At some point, when she is about to break, she finds that there is a tie worth keeping. For all of the ways we could be different from others, there is that particular, sometimes unreasonable, tie between two humans that transcends all.

Return to Seoul
dir. Davy Chou
115 min.

Opens Friday, 3/3 @ Kendall Square Cinema, and on 3/10 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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