a shark-like adoption drama that its 25-year-old heroine wears like an extra layer of skin or sharp cartilage. The film spans eight years over the course of two hours, but you can feel its bristly texture and self-possessed violence from the disorienting first scenes.
Played by plastic artist and first-time actress Park Ji-Min (who gives a towering performance worthy of the same attention that Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh will receive for their work this fall), the French-raised Freddie arrives in Seoul without context, which leaves us the fool’s errand of trying to “solve” her identity over a few too many glasses of soju with her new friends. Some clues are easier to decipher than others. While Freddie may have been born in the country — and carry what some of her drinking buddies agree is “a typical Korean face” from “ancient, ancestral” times — it’s clear that this is her first trip back since she was adopted as a child, and that she neither thinks of it as home nor speaks a word of the native tongue.
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Less obvious is the agenda behind Freddie’s sudden return. Her flagrant disregard for local customs suggests that she isn’t there to get in touch with her roots, and when someone suggests that she contact the local adoption agency, Freddie doesn’t just change the subject, she completely transforms the energy of the film itself. A flash of light across her eyes cues Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s wild and woozy score to creep into the mix (imagine the sound of a drunken woodcutter preparing to chop down a redwood on a dare), and the next thing we know Freddie is scampering around the bar and bringing everyone together around the same table. It won’t be the last time that she retreats into a thick beat for safety, or that Chou’s layered and elusive screenplay — which aggressively resists convention at every turn — uses music to reach Freddie when language falls short.
The next morning, after Freddie wakes up in some goofy stranger’s bed and insists they have sex again because she’s too drunk to remember if they did it the night before, she wanders over to the adoption center with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s been summoned there by court order (Park radiates a “what the hell do you want?” energy that proves wonderfully confusing for the nice lady behind the desk who’s used to more eager visitors). When Freddie insists that she “knows nothing” about Korea, we realize that extends to her reasons for being there. Some part of her may be searching for reconciliation, but another part of her is so resentful towards the idea of being ascribed an identity after a lifetime of inventing her own that she immediately becomes the opposite of whatever people expect. One of the movie’s several major time-jumps returns to find that Freddie has become an arms dealer, by which point the change is jarring enough to seem completely on-brand.
It’s a kind of reverse camouflage that Freddie wears like warrior paint — Chou was inspired by Furiosa, though one costume seems to knowingly invoke Lady Vengeance — her kill-or-be-killed attitude giving the character control of every scene in the film right up until the one that finds her surrendering it completely. Sometimes that control exudes a certain strength, as it does when Freddie flips the usual gender dynamics on any of the men lucky enough to get squished under her shoes. Other times it renders her sad and small, as it does when she humiliates her guilt-stricken, alcoholic birth father after spending a few days with his new family. His simpering love is repulsive to her.
It’s a miracle that Freddie doesn’t laugh out loud when she learns that her birth name means “docile,” but then again, she’s not always in on the joke. The magic of Chou’s film — and of the irrepressible performance tasked with carrying it through every shot — lies in how it reflects the chaotic energy of someone who’s lost in translation within herself.
On the one hand, Freddie’s racial, familial, and historical roots might allow her to better recognize herself in Korea than she ever could in France. On the other, the fact that everyone treats Freddie’s trip like a homecoming only makes her feel like more of a stranger. Rather than explore that disconnect in the didactic language that it implies, Chou encourages Park to alchemize her character’s self-divided feelings with all the recklessness of a nuclear physicist splitting the atom. The most riveting moments (in a movie that doesn’t really have any other kind) appear to catch Freddie in the fallout of her own reactions; even the brief glimpse of Freddie riding the bus to meet her birth fall is irradiated by a combustible sense of truth and danger as she cackles in her seat while shouting at the driver to turn the vehicle around.
In that light, it’s no small thing to say that “Return to Seoul” is as raw and serrated as Freddie herself, or that Chou manages to maintain an uncanny sense of control over her story even as it flowers into a miniature epic over the course of its expansive second half (this is the “Diamond Island” director’s second feature, arriving a full six years after his similarly dreamlike and ambitious debut). Unexpected as some of the plot’s various pivots and gaps might seem in the moment — Freddie even goes through an alt-goth phase — their heedless forward movement reflects the zero-sum mindset of a woman trying to invent a new version of herself on her own terms at the same time as she yearns for an old version of herself that never was; it’s worth noting that “Return to Seoul” was called “All the People I’ll Never Be” before Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film out of Cannes and saw fit to alter its title for American release.
Like Freddie, Chou’s drama is vulnerable and dauntless all at once. Lovable and hostile. Earnest and absurd. It’s the rare movie that can drop a long-take dance sequence into the middle of a pressing conversation without seeming the least bit mannered or aloof; the rare movie that only feels more honest as a result of its most flamboyant choices, and only makes its heroine more empathetic as a result of how she pushes other people away (“I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers” Freddie snaps at a fawning boyfriend in a moment that made me sick with worry for her adoptive parents back in France). That “Return to Seoul” ends on a note as wracked and ambivalent as the ones that crescendo towards it might frustrate anyone still waiting for a cleaner sense of catharsis, but Chou’s plaintive coda feels like a resoundingly true finale to the story of a woman who’s driving forwards in reverse, and won’t know where she wants to go until she can see the full view of who she’s always been.
“Return to Seoul” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and made its North American debut at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters later this year.
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