Review: Return to Seoul Is an Evocative, Moving Search for Identity, Family and Home

With so much content to consume on any given platform on any given day, releasing movies these days is more a labor of love than a business endeavor. Some of the best films (or at least most notable) open theatrically or on streaming services to little or no fanfare while others manage to ride a wave of positive word of mouth and acclaim to strong box office numbers and awards nominations. It’s anyone’s guess, which makes recommending a beautiful, moving film like Return to Seoul, perhaps one of the year’s best, seem like a fool’s game. Will a quiet yet poignant film like this ever really get the attention it deserves in such a crowded marketplace? One can only hope.

Written and directed by Davy Chou (Diamond Island), Return to Seoul follows Frederique (aka Freddie, played by Park Ji-min), a Korean-born young woman who was adopted as an infant and raised by a loving, attentive family in France. She’s back in Korea now, though, and toying with the idea of seeking out her biological parents. It’s a life-altering decision many of us will never truly understand, with implications for one’s identity, sense of self and worldview. Before she makes any heavy decision, she lets loose a bit with newfound friends, drinking all night and waking up next to a guy she just met. Needless to say, Freddie doesn’t exactly have her life together, but she’s taking the first, shaky steps into figuring it out.

Freddie first discovers her father (Oh Kwang-rok), and with the help of a new friend from her hotel, Tena (Guka Han) who also speaks French, she meets this very important stranger in his small town outside of the city. It’s the definition of a clash of cultures, as Freddie brings her contemporary European expectations (of personal space, self reliance and the like) to her father’s multi-generational Korean home, where he makes no effort to hide both his regret at giving his daughter up or his desire for her to return “home,” to live with him again. It’s all terribly off-putting (for Freddie and us), and doesn’t help endear him to his newly rediscovered child.

As central as her search for her parents is to Freddie’s story, it’s not the only journey she’s on as she transitions from a free-spirited (and fairly self-centered) young person to a woman oozing confidence and poise, one who knows her place in (almost) every room she enters. We follow Freddie for years, checking in again and again to see where she’s drifted and who she’s associating with over time, and Park delivers a transformative and bold performance of a woman lost in her own native land, putting up a strong front to mask her deep vulnerabilities. As a filmmaker, Chou evokes the chaos of Freddie’s inner life with stark framing choices and a pulsing soundtrack that underscores his protagonist’s many layers.

As the years pass and Freddie’s relationship with her biological father navigates various ups and downs, it’s her biological mother who still remains a mystery, the inquiries from the adoption agency receiving no response. This clearly gnaws at Freddie; a moment calling her adoptive mother back home in France is made all the more meaningful as we realize how untethered Freddie feels from both sides of herself, from the parents who created her and those who raised her. The film’s final act aims to resolve this last missing piece for a woman who has otherwise sorted out her life, her relationships and her priorities, and in doing so Chou allows us a glimpse into something we already know: even one missing piece means the puzzle will forever remain unfinished.

Return to Seoul is now playing in select theaters, including Music Box Theatre in Chicago.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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