Director: Davy Chou Starring: Ji-Min Park, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young Running Time: 119 minutes
There are a lot of movies about travelling to find yourself, stories which marry our natural desire to explore with our need for our journeys to have meaning. It isn’t always the reality though, that we find something satisfying, that the journey takes us where we want to go.
What next then, when we eat but are still hungry, pray but are unanswered, get the ick before we even get around to love? In Davy Chou’s Return To Seoul, a young woman looks to find her roots, though her trips to Korea are frustrating efforts to find herself, nevertheless, that place is wherr she keeps finding herself.
A sensational lead performance by Park Ji-Min makes Chou’s film a slow-burning success. She plays Freddie, a young woman adopted when she was an infant, born in South Korea and raised in France. At 25, she impulsively journeys back to the Korean capital, alone. She deflects when she’s asked if she’s there to track down her birth parents, but it’s not NOT why she hopped on an intercontinental flight so suddenly.
Freddie captures attention in any room she’s in. Ethnically Asian, she doesn’t speak any Korean, requiring translators who occasionally sand down her edges. Her birth name Yeon-hee she’s told means docile and joyful, which isn’t quite her. She’s fun but not friendly, impulsive and imposing but cutting and closed off. Park’s performance is all charismatic cool, apathetic shrugs and magnetic moves, and the performer creates a wonderfully realised character out of these affects – a woman who wants to have clearly identifiable aspects of who she is, because she doesn’t always fully know who she is. When another character responds to Freddie’s cruelty by calling her a deeply unhappy person, you get the strong sense it’s not the first time that’s been said to her.
Freddie essentially stumbles into an effort to track down her birth parents. Her father is disappointing and her mother is elusive. Chou assembles an open, honest depiction of the process and the people involved. Freddie’s birth father is long since wracked with guilt, officials at the adoption agency are kind hearted but hand-tied. And in Freddie herself, the director and his lead actress present a compellingly complex centre. Never shirking from her unsympathetic actions, they show a wider picture that’s more easily understood. From her mid 20s, the film jumps to different periods where Freddie returns to Seoul, each time a little different, each time searching. It’s uncompromising, and real – emotional clarity eludes Frankie, and seeing that helps us better understand the similar circumstances in ourselves.
The film impressively shows Korea as alien to Freddie without ever putting that down to the place itself, a challenge similar films, even good ones, have struggled with. Compared to say, Tokyo in Lost In Translation, Seoul here is never exoticised, its adoption centres look bland and bureaucratic, as they do everywhere. Over time, as Freddie explores herself more, we pick her up in varied locales – tourist trap dive bars, high class rooftop wineries, sweaty clubs and awkwardly respectable restaurants. As she sifts through identities herself, she finds the multitudes similarly contained in Korea’s locations.
With the well-considered complexities of the cast and crew, Return to Seoul has a clear vision for the grotty emotional journey it’s taking us through. It does so at its own pace – the time skips may jarr some viewers – and aware of its own risks. Prickly and impulsive Freddie, clearly, isn’t a character for everyone, not even always one for herself. But her trips to Seoul; personal, particular, railroaded but open ended, show us a familiarly resonant feeling. Wherever you go, there you are.(4 / 5)
Return to Seoul is in Irish cinemas now and available on MUBI from 7th July.