Return to Seoul
2023, R, 115 min. Directed by Davy Chou. Starring Park Ji-min, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Yoann Zimmer, Hur Ouk-sook, Son Seung-beom.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., April 7, 2023
The independent young woman at the restless core of Return to Seoul (previously titled All the People I’ll Never Be) isn’t particularly likable. There’s much about Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (née Yeon-hee) that alienates her from others: her manipulativeness, her reckless need for attention, her casual cruelty. Born in Korea but raised by adoptive parents in France after her birth mother and father decided they lacked the resources to give her a good life, the 24-year-old Parisienne has never visited her native country since being sent overseas as an infant. But when a vacation flight to Tokyo is canceled, she impulsively (or maybe consciously?) decides to reroute the trip to Seoul, a decision that essentially reroutes her life.
Once in the South Korean capital, Freddie performs the role of the slightly wide-eyed stranger in a strange land. She's never learned to speak its language or study its culture because she’s always considered herself French without a second thought. At first, her unorthodox energy mildly shocks and amuses her Korean peers. When a couple of newly befriended locals introduce her to the social custom of filling another’s glass when drinking, she declines to conform to the practice even out of politeness, using it as a flirty means of getting free pours of soju from a nearby table of intoxicated young men.
But any ambivalent feelings Freddie may have about an Asian identity turn toxic after she, without much forethought, tries to initiate contact with her blood parents through an adoption agency, risking heartbreak no matter how the effort turns out. It’s almost as if her Yeon-hee self needs to be seen and heard after being suppressed for so long. The unsentimental eight-year journey of personal discovery Freddie subsequently undertakes doesn’t follow an easily navigable path, sometimes frustratingly so. While she doesn’t tread the familiar character arc leading to a glib third-act redemption, there are recognizable truths in her bumpy pursuit of trying to make sense of herself, warts and all. Two steps forward, one step back.
In her assured film debut as Freddie, Park holds your rapt attention. She is, as they say, a natural. Park is most engrossing in those scenes in which Freddie acts out, her inner emotional turmoil manifesting itself in mesmerizing fashion, as when she’s outfitted in black leather and bloodred lipstick while on a Tinder hookup date with a much older man. This casting was a happy accident. French Cambodian director/screenwriter Chou initially met with Park before filming began to pick her brain about her experiences as a native Korean transplanted to Paris with her family at an early age and determined afterward – to Park’s surprise – she was the one to play his lost protagonist, despite a lack of acting experience or training. It was a gamble, but one that paid off nicely.