Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul is a bit of a misnomer for it is not about a return to Seoul, but many returns – if we can say that someone who never knew her homeland could be said to be returning at all…
The film opens some years in the past, with a young Frenchwoman showing up at a cute little hostel in the South Korean capital. Frédérique (Park Ji-Min) has made a last-minute decision to return to the country of her birth after being adopted as a baby by a (white) French couple. ‘Freddie’ quickly shows herself to be spontaneous and fearless, doing away with Korean custom and quickly turning a quiet dinner into a raucous, drunken all-nighter. Her new-found friends, who include the hostel receptionist Tena (Guka Han), are both enraptured and shocked by her, although audiences may find her snarky expression and slappable smirk a little less entrancing.
As the story unfolds, and Chou sets his anti-heroine on a mission to find her birth parents, it is clear that this betimes cruel carapace has hardened over the years to protect Freddie from further rejection. When chinks in her armour are prised open – mainly thanks to booze or pills – we see the charming, fun, brave woman hidden deep below the surface. The result is surprising as Chou and the excellent Park make you warm to a woman who goes out of her way to keep any warmth at arm’s length.
During Freddie’s first return visit, she meets her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok) – a hardened drinker full of sadness and self-recrimination – and his family. Freddie seethes with anger and finds her birth family cloying and unbearable. Once she has unlocked the floodgates of emotion in her father, there is no stopping him as he pursues her like a spurned lover, sending hundreds of drunken messages and showing up outside her hostel. Meanwhile, her mum is a no-show and Freddie heads home.
Cut to a few years later and Freddie is back, this time living in the city and looking a little sleeker and a little harder (if that were possible). She has a cute boyfriend and coterie of mates, but spends her nights on Tinder dates, during which she providentially meets a charismatic arms dealer (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), who sees a future for Freddie in his line of work.
When we next meet Freddie, she is teetotal and in control of her life. She is back in Seoul with her handsome boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer) in tow and this time she is the arms dealer. This is a nice touch for Freddie is a woman hellbent on becoming completely ruthless (as her poor loving beau is about to discover). Just when you thought she couldn’t get any less likeable, you discover her doing a morally dubious job and treating her boyfriend like shit. Again, she meets up with her father, who is undergoing a bit of a metamorphosis himself, while her mother remains firmly out of the picture.
And then we reach the final act of this insightful film. Freddie has undergone yet another transformation and even declares that she is happy. Reading this summary of Freddie’s story might make you wonder if you want to bother with a woman so unsympathetic. Yet Chou’s trick is to show Freddie’s public persona and counter it with her secret emotional life, which is only really revealed to the audience and rarely to any of the people she interacts with. Most of the other characters have only suffered from having a relationship with her. As Freddie, Park reveals these inner machinations well, her fear and anger – and abominable behaviour – all understandable.
Chou has created a complex and engaging story about a complicated issue and so it is fitting that his lead is equally complex. Park Ji-Min’s journey from reckless kidult to sleek businesswoman is brilliant and she is aided by the excellent work of costume designer Claire Dubien, whose sartorial choices for Freddie reflect each stage of her development. Languages and translations add to the misunderstandings, frustrations and words left unspoken hanging in the air. Heraclitus’s famous adage that you can’t step in the same river twice is certainly true here, but that doesn’t stop this plucky, infuriating and frequently (self-) destructive protagonist from trying.
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