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Return to Seoul

Released 2022. Director: Dave Chou

WITH DIALOGUES IN FRENCH, KOREAN AND ENGLISH, RETURN TO SEOUL speaks of a meeting and clash of cultures, values and perceptions as seen through the eyes of a young woman troubled about her identity and heritage.

Twenty-five years ago, she was born in South Korea but adopted by a French couple and grew up in France. Her name has always been Frederique Benoit, or Freddie in short. Freddie has just arrived in her birth country for the first time and reaches out to an adoption centre trying to find out about her biological parents. Her birth father was easy to locate and they arrange to meet. Freddie is not prepared emotionally or psychologically. What is she expecting? She couldn’t tell.

Although this trip to South Korea was unplanned (heading to Japan for a break originally), it’s only a matter of time before Freddie would embark on her search. She carries in her wallet an old photo of her birth mother and finding this lost connection has always been close to her heart. Yet somehow Freddie has never really opened herself to accept the facts about her past, and as we’ll see, continues to keep her blood ties at arm’s length despite initiating the first contact.

Freddie is a conflicted adoptee whose overwhelming feeling of abandonment blinds her to see any other viewpoints but hers alone. As a character study, Return to Seoul gives a vivid portrayal of such a mindset and first-time actress Park Ji-Min brings out the self-contradiction in a lost daughter caught between worlds with a whole lot of existential angst.

Outwardly Freddie blends into a young, modern Korea. Inside, she knows she doesn’t belong. You could feel she wants to be a part of her unknown ancestral heritage, yet she resists, unable to resolve the hurt of having been forsaken. She’s largely ignorant of the culture, sparse in her knowledge of the language and inclines to upset norms rather on purpose.

Freddie spends a couple of days with her birth father and his family and the experience is awkward and unfulfilling. Her father overcompensates in his remorse and affection, clearly wishes to embrace the sudden return of his daughter and cultivate a new relationship. Her grandmother is emotional and makes Freddie uncomfortable. She learns that she was named Yeon-Hee, meaning docile and joyful, which Freddie is anything but. The extended family is welcoming and supportive but Freddie shows no desire for anything deeper than a hello and goodbye.

In the next few years Freddie would return to Seoul, even working there, meeting her father again and finally her birth mother. Everyone has had time to process the turn of events. Has Freddie found what she’s been searching for?

Writer-director Dave Chou reportedly based his story on one of his friends. So on one level Freddie’s story reflects the experience of some adoptees removed from their birth culture. Freddie’s character is open to different interpretations. She personifies doubt, conflict and contradiction, a complex psychology and a natural human response. She’s a character rich in emotional depth but she’s stuck. Time passes, lives change but she remains steadfastly self-centred. It’s hard for me to say whether Freddie’s story tends towards universal or unique.

As the movie is built entirely from Freddie’s experience we as audience are asked to connect with that, to feel her pain and see through her eyes. Her search and response brings out the negatives in her personality. She seems to blame her unhappiness on having been given up for adoption. Her purpose seems to find fault and not connection or ways to patch an emptiness. She doesn’t make any effort to understand her birth parents’ decision and refuses to see things from someone else’s perspective. She doesn’t forgive and she carries around with her a victim mentality.

Chou gives us many instances to unpack Freddie’s state of mind. Consider the way she callously dumps a young man infatuated with her, how she ditches her father’s gift of ballet shoes, shuts out her adopted parents in her search and taking a year to send a text message to her birth mother.

Freddie's appearance clearly changes over the years, more confident, polished and assured. Yet despite the surface makeover, has she found a way to reconcile her defense mechanism with her deepest longing? If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the longer you carry the bitterness, the harder it is to move forward.


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