“Return to Seoul”, which was the official submission of Cambodia for Best International Film Oscar in last year (It was later included in the shortlist, by the way), is an interesting work to observe and admire for good reasons. As calmly but sensitively observing its conflicted adoptee heroine’s quiet but intense struggle in South Korea, the movie serves us a series of sublime emotional moments often alternatively baffling and striking, and we come to have some human understanding and empathy on her even though we still regard her from the distance along with the movie itself.
The first act, which is set in 2013, opens with its heroine’s arrival at a little inn located somewhere in the middle of Seoul, South Korea. While she was supposed to go to Tokyo, Japan, Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Park Ji-Min) chose to come to Seoul instead just because of an impulsive decision of hers, and, fortunately, she quickly comes across someone who can be a guide/friend/translator for her during her following staying period in South Korea.
Although the movie does not tell or show a lot about Freddie, we gradually gather some details of her life and herself. She was born in South Korea, but then she was abandoned not long after her birth, and then she eventually got adopted by some nice French couple. While everything certainly looks so alien to her in South Korea, that does not stop her carefree spirit at all when she is when she is drinking with her new friend at a local restaurant, and she surely enlivens the mood a lot. As watching how much she is driven to live for any good moment of joy and freedom, I wrote down this in my mental note: “This is the first manic pixie adoptee girl movie I have ever seen.”
Meanwhile, Freddie comes to learn about a local foundation center for South Korean adoptees looking for their biological parents. She seems not so interested at first, but, what do you know, she later goes to that local foundation center for getting to know anything about her biological parents. Although she did not prepare anything for the following procedure, both of her biological parents are soon located and then notified of her wish to contact with either of them, and she and her new friend later go down to Gunsan, a little seaside local city where her biological father has resided with his family. She is certainly welcomed a lot by her biological father and his family when she eventually arrives there, but she cannot help but feel uncomfortable as being more aware of the cultural/lingual gap between her and her ‘new’ family. As a matter of fact, she even attempted to go back to Seoul despite being in the middle of the bus trip to Gunsan, and you can see how much anxious and confused she is behind her rather detached façade.
Her biological father and his family try to be nice and comforting to Freddie, but we come to wince more than once as they annoy and bother her a lot even though they and she are total strangers to each other from the beginning. In case of her biological father, he is a pathetic middle-aged loser who also often drinks a lot, and, as a South Korean audience, I must tell you that I have frequently seen such guys like him not only on the screen but also in my real life. At one point, he is so wallowed in alcohol as well as self-pity that Freddie wishes more to see her biological mother, but, sadly, her biological mother does not seem to get involved with her again no matter how much Freddie and that foundation center tries.
The second act, which is set in 2015, shows Freddie living in Seoul now, and we observe how casually and aimlessly her current life is. She is living with some young tattoo artist, and he seems to love and care about her a lot, but she is rather distant to him in their open relationship. She does not hide at all who was her latest blind date via Tinder, and she even lets him and herself have a sort of little threesome moment with a fellow South Korean adoptee of hers when they all happen to be in the middle of a wild private birthday party for her.
When Freddie eventually gets tired more of being in Seoul, the movie jumps forward to the last act, which is set in 2020 as reflected by the sights of numerous people wearing mask on the streets and alleys of Seoul. At first, Freddie, who has just returned to Seoul after spending some years outside South Korea, seems to be more stable and well-adjusted than before with her French boyfriend, but we soon come to sense lots of discontent and conflict from her even though she does not signify much as she and her boyfriend have a cordial lunch with her biological father and aunt.
All these and other individual moments in the film do not seem to add up much when it eventually arrives at the epilogue part, but they come to convey to us a growing sense of isolation and alienation surrounding our heroine, and Chou and his crew members including cinematographer Thomas Favel did a fabulous job of bringing a considerable amount of palpable realism to the screen. For example, a number of real locations in Seoul and some other areas of South Korea are effectively utilized for bringing more local atmosphere to the movie, and I was certainly delighted a bit by a few shots of my hometown Jeonju later in the film.
Although several notable South Korean performers including Oh Kwang-rok appear as the crucial supporting characters in the story, they look believable as plain ordinary people, and they seldom overshadow the exceptional lead performance from Park Ji-Min. Despite never having any acting experience before this film, Park, who closely collaborated with Chou on bringing more life and authenticity to the story and her character (Her character is actually inspired by a friend of Chou, by the way), creates a vivid and complex human character to observe, and her performance is strong enough to hold our attention even when her character becomes quite distant and unlikable.
Overall, “Return to Seoul”, which is Chou’s second feature film after “Diamond Island” (2016), will require some patience from you due to its rather opaque storytelling and slow narrative pacing, but it will engage you more than expected if you just go along with its indelible mood and Park’s strong acting. As a Korean adoptee drama made by a French-Cambodian filmmaker, the movie is certainly curious from the start, and I am happy to report you that it is much more than being merely curious on the outside.