Charged with the intensity of its leading performer, whose taut physicality and intense gaze could move mountains, Return to Seoul is a staggering achievement by filmmaker Davy Chou. A story of parts that refuse to fit, the film tackles what it means to be alien to the place you were born, uninhibited and defiant in the face of customs of a place foreign in all but appearances. Following a young woman who travels from France to her birthplace, Korea, in what begins as a sabbatical and turns into an odyssey in which she journeys a worn and lonesome path to find her birth parents. This acts as a cover for the greater story, one in which a woman battles with herself, those who surround her, and the unspoken and verbalized societal systems she refuses to adhere to.
Freddie (the luminescent Ji-Min Park in her debut role) has arrived in Seoul, and her first connection with someone comes through music. To call it friendship is to oversell what it is, with the other party playing a reluctant guide who is curious about this transplant while also cautious of her fierce independence. Freddie will spend the film suspended, lost in translation as she’s so noticeably out of her depth in terms of social and cultural expectations, and actively indignant that she’s expected to behave any which way.
Adopted as an infant, Freddie has never met her birth parents, having grown up in France. The film is expertly divided into sections in which she deals with different characters who pop in and out of this excavation of self. Freddie isn’t a likable character – not in the slightest – but she’s fascinating and empathetic, even when she’s only barely keeping a lid on her bottled rage and bitterness in the face of others’ expectations. When she stares at a character, it appears she’s seeing right through them which is funny since she seems so incapable of getting a grasp of her own emotions.
But her unlikability and motivations for change for the sake of control make her hypnotic, aided by the tremendous performance Park gives. As her character either engages with others with apathetic contempt or uses those woven into the DNA of her life as playthings for the sake of immediate satisfaction, Park never stops being magnetic.
One scene relatively early on in the film helps make such a grand statement. Rejected by her company, Freddie stands alone in the smokey confines of a dance floor and lets loose. The fixation on the dance sequence and club scene stems from how, in moments lost in the music, bass in your chest bliss, it’s easy to believe that we’re witnessing the true Freddie – messy, engaged, passionate. It doesn’t matter that she’s alone, with no one to share the spotlight, and it would matter less if she were in a crowd. Our eyes are trained on her, such is the momentous pull Park has. Her freshness adds to the fish-out-water component but there’s a poise to her performance that fuels the character and could easily fool viewers into thinking she’s a seasoned pro, rather than an ingenue.
While, fittingly, none of the actors are given as ample opportunity to shine as Park, Oh Kwang-rok is extraordinary as her estranged father. He’s selfish, and drunken, thinking of his own pain and feeling guilt over his perceived abandonment of Freddie. His is another layered performance in a film that requires that level of introspection as we find ourselves sympathetic and agitated by these characters in equal measures. They are impossibly human, making their pains and growth – no matter how fine – all the more potent.
It helps that the script (also by Chou) understands that the story necessitates a slow-burn character study. The effect is an elicitation of greater emotions that linger days, weeks, months even, after having finished. The writing is patient because to be with Freddie the entire runtime and watch as she commits one casual cruelty after the other is to slowly unravel the anger and heartache that guide her. The script allows just as much time as each piece of the story needs rather than be beholden to standard pacing. There’s French New Wave humor, mixed with Korean melodrama and a litany of other styles and genres. The result is an enigmatic final product that is both as inspired by the stories and genre legends that have come before it while proclaiming its individuality so that it never is mistaken as a mere echo of a greater film.
The synergy of the story and its storytellers is overpowering as Chou and Park come together for a work of fiction that speaks to so many while keeping both a level of universality and specificity so that people may draw on the characters’ experience while offering refuge to those who understand the immigrant experience. Gorgeous and crisp cinematography diffuses daytime tension with abundant grays while allowing nighttime passages a cool clarity that holds Freddie at the forefront rather than letting her disappear into the shadows. Despite Freddie never feeling at home, a wayward soul seeking a place of steadiness and comfort that has nothing to do with a physical space, the film itself is an achievement in balance.
Because Return to Seoul isn’t attempting to emulate great films, it’s trying to be one itself. And it’s succeeded with a blistering and emotionally bruising depiction of the coming-of-age stories of your mid-twenties, and the defensiveness that comes from being displaced. Steady in its gaze, fervent in intent and execution, Return to Seoul is an impassioned achievement across the board.
Return to Seoul is now in limited theaters. Watch the trailer below.
Featured Image Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Return to Seoul - 9/10