Korean music leads us into the opening scene: a receptionist interacts with an interesting new guest at the hotel, switching quickly from Korean to English and finally French when she sees her passport. A film that opens with music and three languages in succession within the first three minutes is well set for complexity. Having premiered at the Cannes Film Festival under the Un Certain Regard section in 2022, Return to Seoul is an emotionally packed drama film with elusive melancholy and comedic resistance that crosses roads with many themes and emotions.
Frédérique “Freddie” (Park Ji-min) was adopted from Korea by a French couple during the Korean war, raised French with barely any connection to her roots – she didn’t speak a word of Korean, and her demeanor couldn’t be more different from Korean etiquette. For her, it seemed, rules were disregarded, and no plans were necessary. Even her decision to visit Seoul, a city that was supposed to be emotionally significant both to her and her adoptive mother, was simply made on a whim. Sometimes excessively straightforward and outgoing, it is almost as if nothing could touch her. But her aimless trip takes a turn as, encouraged by her friends, she decides to go to the adoption agency and search for her birth parents. In the process of her reconciliation with the contrasting reactions from her biological kins, we start to see her emotional complexity and follow along in her quest to search for her story, but more so, herself.
There is so much more to the character of Freddie than her adoptee status. It is obvious that Freddie is not someone who is comfortable with opening up or being vulnerable. She is defensive and avoidant, immersing herself in drugs, alcohol and antics to drown out her emotions. Despite the technicolor lights, her pain seeps through the tenderness in her eyes. The depth of this vulnerability rises and falls as she goes through phases in her life, the developments of which are often comically unpredictable. But this is exactly what we are here for: Freddie is trying to find herself, and she is just trying for the right answer.
During a Q&A, director Davy Chou points out “time” as an important factor in the film, as it is the passing years that mark Freddie’s transformation. We follow Freddie through eight years of her life from a reckless tomboy to a classy arms dealer, and never does she seem to fit in or belong anywhere. She is somewhat awkwardly stuck in-between but also a perpetual outsider, whether it’s before her weeping drunkard birth father or at a basement party with her friends. The complexity of the character is stunningly portrayed by first-time actress Park Ji-min and shot with beautiful cinematography.
Worth mentioning is how music accompanies Freddie on her journey from beginning to end, from Korean music in headphones of the hotel receptionist to a piano recording on her father’s phone. Freddie hears music even in the deadest of silences, fleetingly mentions being a musician, and makes a reference to reading the crowd as if sight-reading sheet music. Where people have rejected or have been rejected by her, music seems to be the one thing that remains unmoving in her life. And she will follow wherever it leads her.
Return to Seoul, originally titled a more telling All The People I’ll Never Be, is a movie about stories, emotions, and identity. We don’t get closure in Freddie’s story, but we can put our faith in the stumbling melody she sight-reads and plays on the hotel piano, guiding her to, as the director so poetically put it, “sight-read her way through life”.
Written by Isabella Pang