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Frédérique Benoît, aka Freddie, is a character who holds everyone at arm’s length, including the audience. She’s unreasonably self-impressed, condescending and often flat-out cruel. There are signs of sincere searching amid all the acting out, but every step forward seems to be followed by several slides back. That the story of someone so off-putting climaxes in a moment as profound and moving as the penultimate scene of Return to Seoul speaks to the subtle power of writer-director Davy Chou’s storytelling and the portrayal by Park Ji-Min, a visual artist making a strong impression in her first screen role.
Chou’s two previous feature-length films are the Cambodia-set documentary Golden Slumbers and the narrative feature Diamond Island, which received the SACD Prize in Cannes’ Critics’ Week in 2016. Picked up Sony Pictures Classics on the eve of the Cannes festival, Return to Seoul will take this talented helmer and his keen-edged art house sensibility to a wider audience. Hard-to-like female characters are a good thing, and the movie’s culturally specific story of being uprooted and transplanted has universal resonance.
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Tracing an eight-year period in Freddie’s life, beginning when she’s 25, the film is bookended by scenes of her checking into a hotel — an apt juncture for the story of a soul’s itinerant path, shaped by serendipity and by purpose. When Freddie arrives at a small inn in Seoul, knowing not a word of Korean, it’s the result of a spontaneous airport decision after her planned trip to Tokyo, a favorite vacation spot, is rendered impossible by a typhoon. “I just needed to go somewhere,” she’ll later explain, defensively, to her adoptive mother in France (Régine Vial Goldberg), who strikes a guilt-tripping proprietary pose, not pleased that Freddie’s first visit to her native country doesn’t include maman et papa.
Freddie has no genealogical itch to scratch, but soon enough the idea of looking for her biological parents has taken hold, planted by hotel clerk Tena (Guka Han) and Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom), both of whom embrace the chance to speak French with her over dinner. They tell her about the agency that has handled most of South Korea’s international adoptions for decades, and where her records might be found. Freddie absorbs the enormity of this possibility with a stunned silence. All she possesses of Korea is a photo of herself as an infant with a woman she assumes is her mother.
No sooner has a world of what-ifs opened before her than she makes herself busy shoving it away, pulling strangers at the restaurant into a soju-fueled bash for 20-somethings. Blasting through local rules of decorum, Freddie’s exuberance is a spark of vitality. But there’s also a nagging sense that her life-of-the-party theatrics is a protective shell.
Still, she follows up on her new friends’ tip. After a long night of drinking and a random bedroom romp with one of the restaurant-goers (Kim Dong-Seok), who will soon enough be confronted by her malevolence, Freddie heads to the adoption center. In this visit and later ones, her measured but loaded exchanges with agency employees — wonderfully underplayed by Lee Myung-Hee Chung and Kim Joo-Yeon — are extraordinary demonstrations of procedure as a tight-fitting lid on just-beneath-the-boil emotions. Freddie learns her birth name, Yeon-Hee (in a nice bit of irony, it means docile and joyful), and in short order she’s in touch with her father, who lives a couple of hours away, in Gunsan.
He’s played by Oh Kwang-Rok, who will be familiar to international audiences from his supporting roles in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. In contrast with Freddie’s wariness, her father wears his heart on his sleeve. After their initial meeting, which also includes Freddie’s aunt (Kim Sun-Young, exceptionally good), grandmother (Hur Ouk-Sook) and half-siblings, he starts texting Freddie/Yeon-Hee at all hours of the night, after alcohol gets the better of him. Translation software makes this possible; Korean is the only language he speaks. During in-person get-togethers, translating duties go either to Freddie’s cosmopolitan aunt, who speaks English, or to francophone Tena — who always softens Freddie’s cold, dismissive remarks.
“Freely inspired” by the experience of an adopted friend of Chou’s — and informed by his own sense of dislocation/reconnection as someone who was born in France to Cambodian parents and didn’t visit Cambodia until he was 25 — Return to Seoul originally bore the English-language title All the People I’ll Never Be. That’s a nod to the life-shaping decisions that were made for Freddie before she could walk, but it also reflects the gaps between the jagged pieces of her life that form the movie. Taking three jumps across the years after the long first section that forms the film’s first hour, this is a story built on ellipses, the editing by Dounia Sichov precise and sensitive. Whatever damage and healing take place in the intervening years are for us to sort out, with Park’s potent shape-shifting performance providing the clues.
Two years after Freddie’s spur-of-the-moment trip to Seoul, she’s living there, a creature of the night in dark lipstick with an artist boyfriend (Lim Cheol-Hyun), lots of friends in the underground club scene, a job in the vaguely predatory field of “international consulting” and sex hookups with older men like André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a French businessman. He sets her on the path to a new incarnation, revealed after the story’s next leap, into pandemic times. Her rough edges smoothed to a fine, ladylike polish, Freddie is now a glamorous mover and shaker in — where else? — the military-industrial complex. It’s work that her new, polite French boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer) describes by putting the shiniest of fairy tale glosses on it. But another abrupt switcheroo is in store.
Freddie’s heartlessness can be startling and exasperating, however understandable it is that someone so cut off from her feelings opts to be tough. At times Chou relies on well-worn movie tropes like the Woman Dancing Alone scene, apparently de rigueur in certain movies about certain women, and almost always lifted above cliché by the performance. And so it is here, with Park bringing Freddie’s pugilistic bite to the sequence along with her muddled yearnings.
Smartly reflecting the way Freddie straddles cultures as she figures out who she is, Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset contribute a rich and versatile music score. Thomas Favel’s unobtrusive lensing effortlessly follows the main character’s every zig and zag, whether she’s commanding the spotlight in the thick gloom of a bar or observing the pale watercolor palette of a seaside town.
Chou has drawn affecting performances from everyone in his outstanding cast, with several of them called upon to convey subtle changes over the story’s timeline. Freddie’s changes are striking and dramatic, not subtle, but they’re portrayed with a lived-in specificity by Park. And often without uttering a word of dialogue, as in Freddie’s final visit to the adoption agency, when her face is so much softer and more open and vulnerable than when she first arrived.
The closing sequence, which is set in Romania (a detail revealed in the closing credits, not the film itself), revolves around Freddie at 33 and, not coincidentally, a Bach cantata invoking Christ. Chou is hardly holding up his feisty hero as a martyr or savior. Return to Seoul is not about excuses or hosannas. It’s about solo journeys, heavy baggage and welcoming strangers — the stuff of life.
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