Return to Seoul’s character study of a woman lost in a “home” they never even knew is ripe for watching someone dig through their feelings, as their fish out of water tale evolves into an epic of treading water emotionally across more than a decade of time.
Park Ji-min makes their debut as our protagonist, Freddie, and Davy Chou smartly opens the film with a scene that lets us get to know her and how magnetic she can be for and towards others. As Freddie whips a whole restaurant into a shared night out, Chou lets the music grove and Ji-min cook and compel everyone on and through the screen. These good times don’t come crashing down after this opening scene, per se, but us getting to see Freddie in her element of her own making will serve as a stark contrast as she awkwardly navigates her interactions with her birth parents she wasn’t really trying to see in the first place.
Put up for adoption as an infant, Freddie may look distinctively Korean to her new friends, but she is a French woman through and through. Smart, sharp and can cut you like a knife with one sentence, Freddie’s sure footed friendliness in the opening of the film quickly becomes erratic and unpredictable as she sets off to meet her birth father. From there, we watch Freddie evolve more than grow, as time makes a couple of big jumps across the back half of the film.
Coming back around to Park Ji-min’s performance, it really is worth the price of admission. You instantly want to see her in more things with that opening charisma, but the depth she brings to Freddie is remarkable. Drunkenly giving herself over to dance, flirting with an older tinder date, telling her age appropriate lover about that date right after, being driven crazy by her birth father, or quietly navigating the frustration and shame she has for blowing up her plans to visit Korea with her adoptive mother are only a taste of what Park gets to play with. She shows her growing maturity, even if she maybe hasn’t grown as much as she’d like to present.
Chou’s direction across the board is quite fantastic, with the only real misstep in the film being an interesting career change that doesn’t really bring much to the table; outside a ridiculous line about what maybe her true purpose might have been (though, we all think that’s bullshit). Chou meshes music and images wonderfully and the wealth of night photography is impressive and an evocative world for Freddie to navigate.
Standing out from the ensemble around Freddie is Guka Han as her new friend/interpreter (or is it interpreter/friend?) Tena and Oh Kwang-rok as her birth father. Han’s performance is great as she introduces and eases Freddie into Korean culture, finding the humor in her delivery of translations for Freddie that have to be softened quite a bit for her new audience. Her evolution on her feelings for Freddie is important for us viewers as well and she gets to deliver a bit of mic drop on how we should be observing Freddie’s behavior as we head into the back half of the film. Oh is just so fucking sad and a hot fucking mess, you can’t help but sympathize with him, even if he is incredibly pathetic all the same. Sad Korean boys are the butt of a few jokes in this movie and they set Freddie’s love life on an interesting path going forward. Oh’s arc is one of redemption though and he makes you want to cry by the last time we get to see him. Kim Sun-young also deserves some attention, as she helps provide a contrast in translation and hopefulness for Freddie and her biological family, properly selling her trying to do the best she can in a very awkward situation.
Return to Seoul is one of the best character studies of the year and features one of the best debut performances you are ever going to come across. Park Ji-min is a star and I hope we get more of her soon. Chou is also someone I instantly will keep an eye on after this, hoping their evolution as a filmmaker only makes their film stronger. He’s one of the more adept at matching music to image makers to come along in some time. I wonder if he will revisit Freddie in another decade’s time, she’s left in a place of limbo even if she’s made a couple steps forward, and I’d love to see what happens to her in the next chapter of her adult life. I hope Freddie figures it out.