Return to Seoul Review – Perth Lotterywest Film Festival

Cambodian-French filmmaker Davy Chou continues to pull at the thematic thread of familial reconnection that he started picking at in Diamond Island in his latest film Return to Seoul. Where Diamond Island sees estranged brothers reuniting in the haven of construction sites in the paradise for the rich, Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul) sees 25 year-old Freddie (Park Ji-Min) returning to South Korea for the first time since she was adopted as an infant and raised in France. Across the expressively depressing two-hour runtime, we experience the fractious relationship that Freddie experiences within herself as she grapples with her identity as a French-Korean woman in a modern world.

Freddie is a prisoner to her circumstance, having been trapped by fate due to the nature of the adoption process which has progressed over the decades to see over 200,000 Korean babies moved across the globe. Park Ji-Min stuns with a captivating and complicated performance that sees her wavering from being a sympathetic figure to a decidedly unlikable person as she attempts to make sense and reason of the emotions that swirl within her.

An invisible tether pulls Freddie towards her past, leading her to be confronted by the stifling structure of cultural expectations from her Korean father (devastatingly portrayed with a broken soul by Oh Kwang-rok) and the family he lives with. Her Korean Grandmother (Hur Ouk-Sook) dotes over Freddie in a smothering manner that aims to push her French upbringing out of her; at a family dinner, she tears apart Freddie’s chicken in an act of tenderness, yet in Freddie’s eyes this is a moment of condescension and belittles her autonomy as an adult. Chou masterfully balances the earnest desire to establish a familial connection from Freddie’s Korean father with Freddie’s sombre curiosity to get a basic answer of who were the people who brought her into this world, giving each narrative the space to breathe before he extinguishes Freddie’s paternal families hopes of a new future with their lost daughter.

Return to Seoul spans years, with each chapter documenting pivotal interactions with Freddie’s parents along her journey. Chou sporadically peppers in distanced interactions with Freddie’s adoptive parents via text message or distorted video calls, highlighting how Freddie struggles to find a connection point to either of her parental figures.

In both Return to Seoul and Diamond Island, Chou seeks to make sense of the increasingly complex and fractured world that the youth of today must navigate, with the intergenerational impact of centuries of domestic and international conflict being hoisted upon their shoulders as soon as they emerge into the world. The expectation that younger generations can comfortably establish an identity of their own under the weight of increasingly complex and fractured societies where blended identities and cultures overlap like a drunken Venn diagram is profoundly realised here amongst a series of vibrant and desolate sequences that realise just how adrift Freddie is in the world.

Yet, Chou consistently shows that Freddie is a person in control of her own destiny, with Park Ji-Min delivering cutting lines like “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers”. The steadfast maintenance of her identity is something that Freddie has to attend to as people frequently question who she is as a person, as seen in an early scene where a stranger comments on Freddie’s appearance, saying she has “a typical Korean face”, ultimately bringing into question her French upbringing as if it can be easily washed away in a downpour.

As Freddie grows and changes throughout the years, she expresses herself in different ways; in one sequence, a leather jacket swallows her whole, encompassing her slicked back hair and deep rouge lipstick. She is often seen wearing puffy jackets or hoodies, and when alcohol is consumed, the armour comes off and Freddie starts to feel free. Chou utilises music to give Freddie moments of freedom, with an early long-take sequence overwhelming the senses as Freddie dances with carefree abandon as Thomas Favel’s camera observes with tenderness and warmth. It’s in these moments that she’s truly alive, with the music operating as an act of renewal, invigorating Freddie with the energy to keep going. Composers Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset build on their work on Diamond Island to create a score that pulses like an overactive heartbeat, often hanging like anxious fingers tugging at the puppet strings of fate that guide and underline Freddie’s journey.

As each aspect of musical intervention layers upon one another, it culminates in an empowering and emotional closing shot that gives Freddie the closure she seeks, allowing her to commence some kind of notion of resolving the anguish that thrives within her mind. It’s this anguish and depression that permeates through every frame of Return to Seoul, making this an incredibly sad and dour film to experience. Depression is such a complicated state of mind to depict on screen, given the inherently internal nature of how it manifests within one’s soul, and how bitter and barbed the external presentation can often appear. Again, Freddie is quite often an unlikeable figure to be around, but thanks to Chou’s considered and informed direction and script, she is never actively repulsive as you are always given the information you need to see why she acts the way she does.

In the moment, Return to Seoul can be a tedious and torturous experience, with acts of connection struggling to intertwine comfortably like mismatched puzzle pieces being pushed together in a forceful manner, yet equally so, as each moment ekes forward, you can feel the fingers of Chou’s creativity tightening around your heart until it’s almost at bursting point. These are complicated and conflicting emotions that Chou asks his audience to sit with, and as such, it’s really only in retrospection that Chou’s perspective of the harshness of the modern transnational world we live in can it be genuinely appreciated for what it is: a soul-crushing existence that thousands of people seek attempt to seek purpose and meaning within daily.

Director: Davy Chou

Cast: Park Ji-Min, Oh Kwang-rok, Kim Sun-young

Writer: Davy Chou

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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