I spent so much of my most formative years attached to self-destructive people. I’m not sure I can describe why some of them I’ve chosen to continue to treasure in my life while others I’ve expelled completely. Sometimes it can feel like they know they’re hurting you too and that they wish they could stop. Sometimes it feels like they just can’t help themselves but hurt you as part of their self-destruction. It always feels like there must be a reason they are the way they are. Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), written and directed Davy Chou, isn’t especially interested in the collateral damage of self-destruction. Instead, it leads you along a two-hour path wondering why its main character, Freddie (Park Ji-min), is so self-destructive as she tries to find out about her birth parents on her first return to Korea since being adopted as a baby in France. But the movie isn’t about getting answers, it’s about going on the journey.
Return to Seoul isn’t about answers. It purposefully gives you minimal information about Freddy’s past and even her present while giving just enough to pique your interest. It plays off an early concept she drops about sight-reading music and how it requires a certain intuition to be good at it like she is. It just eggs you on as a viewer to try and keep up with her and catch every nuance, only to keep you from ever gaining that much information. Freddy gets older as the film goes on, yet remains a person who cannot help but self-destruct when the wrong triggers hit. She never even seems to confront why she’s looking for her birth parents in the first place or how the experience impacts her.
It’s easy to watch somebody hurt themselves and assume they must be as aware of what they’re doing to themselves as you are. But Return to Seoul is careful never to betray Freddy’s feelings about the whole experience or her behavior. Sure, you can assume she’s disgusted with herself sometimes, but she seems just as unmoved at others. Explanations or excuses for her behavior and decisions are pushed aside so we can experience Freddy’s unadulterated journey.
This is Park’s first role, and she absolutely crushes it. She brings so much physicality to her performance with a face for every situation, comedic, sad, or otherwise. The way she flips a switch from whatever mood she’s in into mania is shocking every time. It reminds me hauntingly of every person I’ve ever been close with who could go from mellow to loving to aloof to angry or even violent in a ten-minute span.
In one scene, Freddy goes from casually sitting with friends to dancing by herself in the aisle, with even the camera unable to keep up with her sudden swings and changes in direction. There are also back-and-forth changes in the color of the background, not to mention the music playing in the background. It perfectly encapsulates what it must be like to spend time around her. It’s riveting to watch but also profoundly uncomfortable. The jump cuts to the emotional and physical crash afterward are always stark reminders of how tense things had gotten. Yet, cumulatively, it’s some of the best depictions of this precise kind of person you can get.
What’s also depicted so incredibly well is the pain of Freddy’s adoption situation. Return to Seoul digs into the cruelty that is shipping kids off, away from their homelands, to be adopted by people in foreign countries. It shows the absolute pain of wondering who your birth parents were, why they let you go, and what might happen if you found them again as an adult. And it shows the struggle to identify yourself when you’re born in one country and culture but were raised in another and don’t even speak both languages.
So much of the first portion of the movie is dedicated to exploring these realities. Friends or family struggle to translate Freddy’s French word for word or do the same for the others’ Korean. Their intentions, let alone the actual things they say to each other, get obfuscated and omitted in a way that excellently exemplifies just how much of an outsider Freddy feels to herself. But ultimately, you can never tell which parts of her experience searching for and meeting her birth parents are the most harrowing: having been adopted and all of those pains surrounding it, or the fact that getting answers doesn’t guarantee a resolution to anything?
Return to Seoul is an exceptionally well-depicted and emotional journey of reconciling with birth parents and their country, language, culture, and choices. But Freddy isn’t the self-destructive person she is because she was adopted. If this wasn’t the journey she was on, struggling along the way, bringing other people down around her, and finding emptiness in the results, she would still be who she is, just with a different story. But Return to Seoul is even more impactful because it forces us to reckon with the fact that no amount of answers and time can guarantee we’ll ever understand why people are how they are—why they hurt themselves and hurt others with them.
Return to Seoul is playing now in select theaters.
Return to Seoul
- Rating - 7.5/107.5/10
Return to Seoul is an exceptionally well-depicted and emotional journey of reconciling with birth parents and their country, langue, culture, and choices.