The Movie Waffler New to VOD - RETURN TO SEOUL | The Movie Waffler


An adopted young French woman returns to her birthplace of Korea.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Davy Chou

Starring: Ji-Min Park, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young, Yoann Zimmer, Hur Ouk-Sook, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing

Return to Seoul poster

Writer/director Davy Chou's Return to Seoul opens with a telling encounter between two young Korean women. They both look Korean, but that's all they have in common. Guest house desk clerk Tena (Guka Han) is timid and withdrawn, embarrassed to have been caught listening to music in her headphones by one of her guests, Freddie (Ji-Min Park). Freddie is far from timid and withdrawn, and asks to listen to Tena's music, a move that at once embarrasses Tena further while also endearing her to this disarmingly confident stranger. While both women are Korean, it's Freddie's first time in the country since being adopted by a French couple as an infant. She's French, as she'll insist several times over the course of the movie, but she's also Korean. Trouble is, she doesn't know what it means to be Korean, or if she even wants to be Korean.

Return to Seoul review

Freddie's reasons for visiting Seoul are left ambiguous. On a Skype call she tells her adoptive mother that her planned flight to Tokyo was cancelled due to a storm and that she instinctively switched to Seoul instead. Her mother's worried tone suggests this wasn't a whim on Freddie's part. When Freddie learns how relatively easy it is to be put in contact with her biological parents through an adoption agency, she decides to make contact, again on what feels like whim. It's a decision that instantly impacts Freddie in ways she isn't emotionally capable of dealing with.

While her biological mother ignores the request from the agency, her father (Oh Kwang-rok) immediately responds. Aided by Tena as an interpreter, Freddie heads to the countryside to meet her father. There she finds a sorrowful man who has been carrying the weight of his actions all those years ago and has turned to the bottle. His new wife confides in Freddie how her husband cries every night thinking about the daughter he gave up. Freddie suddenly realises the weight of her actions when her father begins speaking of having her move to Korea and find a Korean husband. She leaves that evening and immediately begins cruelly joking about how pathetic she finds her father. In what comes off as a particularly cruel action, Freddie discards a pair of ballet shoes her father bought for her in a forest. The image of those discarded shoes is as laden with hurt as that Hemingway attributed six-word story, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Return to Seoul review

Return to Seoul is about the messiness of life, and how messy people can cause untold damage to themselves and others. Over the course of the film we watch as Freddie surprisingly remains in Korea and heads down a path of self-destruction. A jump two years ahead from Freddie's arrival sees her clad in a long black leather coat, slicked back hair and dark purple lipstick, as though she were a replicant in some third Blade Runner movie, an image compounded by the neon background of a bustling, rain-soaked Seoul. We learn that her father has continued to send her messages, though they've become less frequent as time goes on. It's unclear why Freddie chose to remain in Korea, given how much contempt she displayed towards the country and its people in the movie's first act. Then we remember she never received a reply from her mother. If her mother ever replies, will she treat her with the same cruelty she inflicted on her father?

The most interesting movie protagonists are often the most difficult to crack. It's impossible to pin down what Freddie is really thinking or feeling at any given time, and it often seems as if her words and actions, which are at times downright villainous, are a front. Freddie seems to strike out at others any time it seems she might be in danger of getting hurt herself. "I could snap my fingers and make you disappear from my life," she coldly tells a bemused French boyfriend. She enjoys making her conservative Korean hosts uncomfortable with her liberal Western European ways, and revels in dismissing their customs in a manner that's simply rude.

Return to Seoul review

Freddie is difficult to like and even more difficult to understand, but she's never not charismatic, and we don't give up on her because we always sense that every time she hurts someone, she hurts herself a little more. In her first ever role, Park is a sensation, the sort of presence that glues your eyes to the screen, the kind of woman you can't look away from. Trouble, in other words. She has that classic Gallic pout that all the great French female stars possess, and it makes Freddie seem like a visiting alien among the reserved Koreans she embeds herself with. Some will find Freddie too loathsome to empathise with, and maybe they have a point. Others will see past the Parisian pout and European arrogance to a woman deeply troubled, eternally lost, and as Tena puts it, "very sad." An ambiguous, almost Antonioni-esque ending will either be seen as Freddie receiving her just desserts or finally understanding where she came from. By that point she's burnt every bridge that might allow her to return home.

Return to Seoul
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2023 movie reviews