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‘Return To Seoul’ review: Engrossing adoption drama notes a woman’s journey caught in the middle of two worlds

Writer/director Davy Chou’s exploratory drama sees a woman figure out her identity within a trip to Korea.

Sony Pictures Classics

Did you ever feel that you were led to be somewhere by pure luck? This is precisely what happens to Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Park Ji-Min), who was supposed to land in Tokyo but ended up in South Korea. This happens to be her birthplace before she was given up for adoption and taken in by a French family. Perhaps in other films, an adoption drama would result in a person aching right away for a connection to a place they’ve barely known. However, Freddie doesn’t seem the least bit interested in reconnection. At first, it feels like writer/director Davy Chou has her character act as an acute disrupter in Return To Seoul – a person who is just as content as a passerby and will quickly change the energy in the room.

As the narrative entirely paints its eight-year picture, it’s a beautifully shattered symphony of identity and coming to terms with our sense of needing to be wanted. Freddie is entrenched in the French identity she’s grown up with and doesn’t look to abide by others. In the film's first scenes, she sits with some newfound friends, Tena (Guka Han) and Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom), who serve as French-speaking translators. Freddie quickly reveals herself to be an unconventional, thrill-seeking, ball of energy. But that nature hits an impediment once it’s suggested that she go to the adoption agency that sent her overseas.

When she arrives in Korea, it is revealed that all she has of her past life is a single photograph of her mother – a sticking point that grows as Return To Seoul continues. While she’s not able to get in contact with her birth mother, Freddie does meet her father (Oh Kwang-rok), aunt (Kim Sun-Young), and grandmother (Hur Ouk-Sook) – all of which are highly apologetic to her. (Her grandmother prays to the high heavens for forgiveness and thankfulness.) This reunion has an innate awkwardness because of Freddie’s reluctance to connect. Kwang-rok’s portrayal of Freddie’s father is heartbreaking – realizing his mistake, he sends his biological daughter texts filled with olive branches and apologies.

Freddie is not resolved to give one emotional itch – as a matter of fact; she reacts to him like much to the things around her – with a cold disposition. Is it right for Freddie to reject almost every possible chance at connection? Whose to say or judge? Return To Seoul asks how we would deal with being wrapped in the blanket of abandonment. Freddie has committed to a life of non-commitment.

When you think Chou is looking to settle things down, a time jump happens, and we see an old Freddie with jet-black hair meeting with André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a more senior French arms dealer she occasionally hooks up with. He suggests she could excel in the business – and you know what? It’s so in the realm of possibility that Freddie does that very thing by the end of Seoul. She’s caught between two worlds so much that Freddie looks at rebirth as a way to figure things out. Ji-Min Park plays the character so well – you can’t help but hope that what’s next for Freddie is what she’s possibly searching for. But as the old saying goes, not all who wander are lost.

Even a steady relationship with a French man named Maxime (Yoann Zimmer) doesn’t prove to be the sticking point that’s made for Freddie. You can't escape the loneliness, even with her stubborn attitude of not being attached to something. This is why by the end of Return To Seoul, Freddie’s last return to the adoption agency is where she finally comes apart. At some point, we must take a breath and rest our baggage on the street beside us. Not every one of those journeys is meant to be in a straight line – instead, with forks and detours. Return To Seoul isn’t precisely feel-good, but not melancholy either. Sometimes, self-discovery exists within the in-between.

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