Director: Davy Chou (France, Germany, Belgium, South Korea, Romania, Cambodia, Qatar). Year of Release: 2022
The lobby of a hostel, where the receptionist is so busy listening to the music on her headphones that she doesn’t notice that she has a customer. The customer asks what she’s listening to, to which she answers “Korean music”. She hands over the headphones to her intrigued counterpart, who, like her, is a woman in her mid-20s. She listens to the music, then hands the headphones back, her face trying to process what she’s just been listening to.
Freddie (née Frédérique) was born in South Korea, although she was brought up in France and communicates through a mixture of French and English. She shows no obvious affinity to the land of her birth, insisting at different times, that she is French. When she was a baby, her birth parents gave her over for adoption, and have shown little interest since in finding her. Freddie also shows little desire to track down her parents. Like Withnail, she has come here on holiday by mistake.
Freddie goes out drinking with Tena, the hostel receptionist whose fluency in French means she can translate for Freddie, and Tena’s mate Dongwan. They go to a restaurant, and Freddie almost immediately brings people from the different tables together, flirting with a group of young men, and plying everyone with drink. The next morning she wakes up next to one of the men, and can’t remember whether or not they’d slept with each other. Never mind, she says, let’s try again.
Tena convinces Freddie to visit the Hammond adoption agency, which specializes in sending Korean adoptees abroad. They tell her that they are allowed to send 3 telegrams to her birth parents, and if these telegrams remain unanswered, anything more is legally seen as being a form of harassment. If they have the wrong address, there’s nothing more they can do. Freddie overcomes her initial reluctance, and decides to send the telegrams and try and contact her missing parents.
Freddie’s mother does not respond, but her father contacts her immediately. It turns out that he’s an alcoholic who is full of regrets, but is not what Freddie was wanting to find. He wants to make up for lost time with his daughter, and insists that she come and live with him in South Korea. But she is quite happy with her life in Europe, and has little interest in rekindling a relationship with a man who starts to get somewhat clingy. She is more interested in tracking down her mother.
Freddie revisits Seoul on 3 different occasions. Characters wear different clothes to show the passage of time. Most noticeably in the later scenes, they are wearing Covid masks. Over the years, Freddie starts wearing lippy and acquires both a boyfriend and a smattering of Korean. She also becomes an international networker. It is a sign of where the film is coming from that it does not automatically see this as a Bad Thing.
On Freddie’s second visit, she has a tinder date with an arms dealer. By the end of the film, she’s dealing arms herself. Like much of the film, I’m not sure whether this is supposed to be morally relevance or just something that happens in Freddie’s life. This may not matter much to you, but to me it is a serious problem. Arms dealing is not an individual quirk. I have no problem with films about arms dealers, but they are automatically banished from the table of Good People.
This is my personal problem with Return to Seoul. It mooches around, passively taking in the atmosphere of 21st Century Seoul, without really reporting its experiences, or having much to say about anything much. Things happen, then other things happen, and for long periods of time, nothing happens. I’m not saying that this makes Return to Seoul a bad film – it isn’t. But it’s not really the film I was wanting to see this afternoon.
Park Ji-Min as Freddie is a compelling actor, although the film’s depiction of Freddie as being an impulsive chaotic figure means that she is often allowed to act without any real motive or consistency. We are expected to just lick it up because Freddie is just that sort of person. At times she behaves like the worst sort of ex-pat – refusing to make any attempt to understand or enjoy Korean culture because she is French.
There are also countless scenes in trendy bars, which will excite the sort of person who gets excited by things like this. In one scene, Freddie asks the DJ to put on a certain record, and the camera follows her as she dances between the tables. It is a scene which looks impressive but ultimately looks vacuous. What is it trying to tell us? Or is it just trying to look good, without conveying any particular message? You fear that the same could be said about the film.
Return to Seoul has the potential of being a compelling film. It touches serious and intriguing themes of identity, and what it means to feel alienated from your country of birth than of the people who colonised your forebears. The trouble is that its tendency to flit around between subjects means that it is unable to do much interesting with its wealthy subject matter.
I wanted to like Return to Seoul, I really did. And I found the individual performances of many of the actors to make it worth the visit. But just too little happens, and what does takes place exceedingly slowly. Return to Seoul has the aura of a drama which tells us a lot about ourselves. The problem is, that it has too many longuers that what it told me is that I get bored much too quickly.