We often don’t understand the sadness that resides inside us. The protagonist in Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” (Retour à Séoul) is a spontaneous, incredibly headstrong woman who is sad in ways that even she can’t understand. As we meet her over a span of 8 years, we see different versions of her, almost as if she is desperately trying to kickstart a new life each time but is always cut short by the longing for a missing piece in her puzzling life. It’s a captivating life (or at least Chou captures it to make it feel that way), but it’s also a life that is stuck in the in-betweens, and since Cou is able to capture this ethereal crisis of identity that his character goes through without letting the time jumps create a vacuum, you experience it with awe.
The mastery of director Chou’s creation here is its transformative power to not just lead the woman at its center through a series of changes but also lead the audience on a journey that feels relatable. Thanks to an electrifying turn by Park Ji-Min, Return to Seoul becomes a monumental work of transgression where a little detour in one’s life completely changes its trajectory forever.
We first meet Frédérique Benoît, AKA Freddie (Park Ji-Min), as she arrives in Seoul on an impromptu trip. Now a French citizen but with a typical Korean face (as pointed out by one of her new friends), Freddie’s introduction as an impulsive 25-something is arranged like a carefully orchestrated musical piece. She and her new acquaintance Tena (Guka Han) are sitting in a local bar full of strangers when Tena suggests she reach out to the adoption agency that facilitated her adoption into a french home. This is when Freddie starts rounding off people around her to bring them all to a single table, drink soju and get all chatty. She even sleeps with one of them and asks him to have sex with her again the next morning since she doesn’t have any memory of having it the previous night.
That aside, the impulsiveness in her character also inscribes how she actually feels. Having alluded to the question of her adoption when Tena brought it up, we find her at the adoption center next, reluctantly wishing to be there and not be there at the same time. Park Jin-Min is so good at calibrating this conflicting personality that Freddie imbibes that we are also unsure if the adoption agency is the right place for her to be when it feels like her life back home is one of extreme privilege and this anarchic turn might lead her into a never-ending loop.
But like most of life, our decisions are often just steps we take out of curiosity, and so Freddie tries to reach out to her biological parents so as to put a rest to all the questions she might face when her personality is not defined by the identity that she has forged, but with the identity that she was born with. Surprisingly, she gets a response back from her father, and so the next path is laid bare in front of her. According to her, this short trip back to Seoul also leads her to this place, and so be it.
Freddie meets her father and his side of the family and gets to know their stance in life when they decide to give her away. But much of it gets lost in translation as Freddie doesn’t understand her mother tongue. The words that don’t need a syllable to understand make Freddie extremely angry. Still, she gets to see her father’s side, despite her current personality not allowing her to sympathize with him or his drunken, regretful state. Tena, who is there to accompany her, deflates a lot of the angst by diluting the thoughts from both sides, but the meeting peels off an invisible layer from under Freddie’s personality that we only see when the time jump happens.
Having not received any response from her mother on her last trip, we see Freddie back in Seoul again. However, it almost feels like she never left Seoul in the first place. She is a little more aware of the language, has a totally different set of friends, and has a personality that would mean she is out for killing people. This is a totally different Freddie than the one we came to know a few minutes back, and thus it might take viewers a while before they actually set back to her story, but director Chou makes sure that he makes this transition as opaque as possible, while not making it any easier for you or Freddie to understand how she is supposed to feel or be right now.
Saying that Freddie finds her peace of mind and personality while being in Seoul would be selling the film short because the complexity lies in how well Park Ji-Min translates her dilemma onto the screen. We get very little of the internal turmoil that this character is going through, but since it is such an elusive performance where emotions are hidden behind brilliant musical cues like JungHwa Lee’s “Petal,” among many others, we are only left with the discovery that some wounds just don’t heal, especially when there are no roots to ground them under. Making Return to Seoul a masterful character study of a life stuck in the in-betweens.