Return to Seoul review

Return to Seoul is a beautiful film with a revelatory performance at its core

4 out of 5 stars

What’s immediately striking about Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul is how colourful it is. The opening sequence unfolds in a bar in Seoul, as a French woman makes new friends. The atmosphere is warm, toned with reds and gold. The world feels inviting, like a sense of home forgotten. Freddie (Park Ji-min) was adopted as an infant by a French couple and raised in France. By “accident” she finds herself in South Korea at 25 years old, an impulsive journey after a cancelled flight. It’s not long before she’s sitting in an adoption office, primed to meet her biological parents. 

Return to Seoul unfolds over three different chapters in Freddie’s life. The first “accident” turns into two more deliberate incidents, set years apart. The different chapters reflect different shifts in Freddie’s persona, from spontaneous youth, goth party girl and, finally, a more settled adult. Despite the character and time shifts, though, Park Ji-min’s spectacular performance grounds Freddie in reality. Her performance is naturalistic, evasive and prickly. She doesn’t fit in and often doesn’t aspire to. Her wilful desire to blow things up, to reject conformity, feels like a response to her initial “abandonment.” If she pushes them away, she is in control. 

Park Ji-min Return to Seoul
Park Ji-min in Return to Seoul

Park Ji-min’s performance is a revelation. Return to Seoul is her first feature. She’s magnetic in a way that few actors ever are. She’s effortlessly cool and brims with paradoxical emotions. When she’s on-screen, one can’t help but be drawn to her. As a character, Freddie is pulled in many different directions, it would be easy to lose focus or lean into her most likeable qualities. Instead, Park Ji-min’s performance feels like the embers of a fire that might burn out or explode into a fireball. Though calculated and weary, she’s also driven by an insatiable longing to be loved and accepted, to feel whole. 

Part of the driving force of the film resides in Freddie’s own restlessness. As she allows herself to be driven by external forces, one senses that she feels torn into many different pieces. Particularly in the first two chapters, she lacks the experience or maturity to handle the enormity of her fractured identity. Her journey is fraught and stained by her desire to self-destruct, which makes her journey of self-discovery, nuanced and messy, all the more thrilling for the viewer. As it tackles issues such as foreign adoption, cultural relativism and gender roles, it doesn’t allow for easy conclusions or readings. 

Return to Seoul
Return to Seoul

The film doesn’t coddle the audience, and for some, this might lead to a frustrating experience as Freddie’ journey sometimes feels pointless or meandering. The film does feel overly long in parts and Freddie’s third-act career change may further complicate the morality of her character, but also feels strangely cast aside and unexamined in a way that’s more dissatisfying than it is merely ambiguous. It’s unclear what we are meant to glean from Freddie’s forays into the military industrial complex. 

Effortlessly beautiful, Return to Seoul stands out as easily one of the most beautiful films of the past year. This is the third collaboration between director Davy Chou and cinematographer Thomas Favel, and it’s evident that they have a clear shared vision. The film’s dreamy look, warm and colourful, is at the heart of so much of its appeal. In the muddy grey-toned landscape of mainstream cinema, Return to Seoul feels especially pertinent — a filmmaking practice concerned not only with complexity, but youth and desire. Also worth noting, for Oscar fans, since the film’s director Davy Chou is Cambodian-French, Return to Seoul was Cambodia’s official selection for the Best International Feature for the Oscars this year. It’s at the very least better than one of the other nominees in the category — I’ll let you guess which one. ■

Return to Seoul (directed by Davy Chou)

Return to Seoul is currently playing in Montreal theatres.

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