At the center of Davy Chou's third feature film is a stunning debut performance from Park Ji-Min. The film also has a great soundtrack, striking imagery, and great pacing. In short, Return to Seoul is an easy film to fall for. This is a coming-of-age story about identity and place centered around the impermanence of how we define ourselves.
The film revolves around Frédérique Benoît (Ji-Min), or Freddie for short, a 25-year-old French woman who returns to Seoul in search of her biological parents. Freddie is a fantastic character, impulsive but cool, electric but also damaged. She is lost when we meet her, not because her adoptive parents aren't great or because she has been denied anything obvious. She is lost because she is caught between two identities. While she is French, she appears Korean but as she quickly learns in Seoul, she doesn't fit there easily.
While Freddie arrives with no knowledge of the language or culture, she quickly makes friends with Tena (Guka Han) a young Korean woman who speaks French. She guides Freddie to the Hammond Adoption Center where she can connect with her biological parents. Her father (Oh Kwang-Rok) is quick to respond to her telegram. A drinker who regrets not being there for Freddie, he quickly overwhelms her. Her mother leaves her telegrams unanswered.
While Freddie had hoped meeting her father would help, it leaves her more disconnected and she resents him quickly. He asks her to move to Korea and she quickly refuses. He continues to reach out, texting incessantly. While Freddie tells him she is French, we can tell she is not certain about where she belongs.
The film follows Freddie over eight years as she begins to discover herself. The colors shift as she evolves from gray tones to warmer ones. She gets into weapons dealing after having an affair with an older man. When we see her towards the end of the film, she is confident and strong. The way Ji-Min performs this transformation is at the center of what makes this a great film. It is hard to believe this is her first film role. Her expressive but controlled performance is nothing short of incredible.
Return to Seoul asks us to think about the cycles of change we go through in life. Music is central to the film as it pushed beyond the boundaries of language. In one beautiful moment, Freddie is finally able to connect to her father through the song he has written for her. In other moments, she breaks out in dance to work through her emotions. It is a unique role for music to play in a film, something beyond a needle drop or an emotionally-signaling score. Return to Seoul is a fascinating character study in this way, told through a thrilling performance and creative use of music.