There’s no cinematic terrain as potent as an actor’s face. Seeing on it a flexible configuration of internal needs, cultural mores, and wayward desires, writer-director Davy Chou understands this truth intimately with his film Return to Seoul. He grounds his story in the contours and illuminations of lead Park Ji-min’s features and expressions in a debut performance so piercing it makes the entire film move like a breathing poem.
Park plays Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît, a 25-year-old Korean woman adopted by a white French couple soon after her birth, who has returned to her ancestral home in a fluke. Her original flight to Tokyo was disrupted by a typhoon and she opted for the first destination available, or at least that’s how she puts it to her mother in a terse video call. Freddie finds herself at a modest hotel in Seoul, where she studies the face of front-desk worker Tena (Guka Han) with Korean pop songs blaring over her headphones. Freddie’s own face fills the frame, and the audience studies her in kind; there’s evidence of something wild in those eyes. Freddie is a live wire given form, flesh, sinew. She’s a woman defined by what she refuses to be, and Chou appropriately refuses to offer any heartwarming, simple resolutions to the dilemmas marking her life.
Later, when she’s hanging out with Tena and her boyfriend, Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom), at a restaurant humming with chatter, it becomes apparent just how deeply Freddie has refused her Korean heritage. Both Tena and Dongwan speak French, which is imperative since Freddie doesn’t speak a lick of Korean. When Freddie tries to pour her own soju, Dongwan gently advises her on a matter of etiquette: “Let others refill your glass. It’s insulting otherwise.” She still pours her own glass. Freddie carries in her wallet a picture of herself as a baby with the woman she believes to be her birth mother, yet when Tena asks if she’s trying to find her parents, Freddie swiftly responds, “No.” More details emerge. Freddie used to be a musician, for starters. At the restaurant, she insists on “sight-reading” the Korean men and women she haphazardly pulls into her hangout — strangers, the lot of them — with an unwitting 20-something standing in for unfamiliar sheet music. Freddie grows icy when told she has a “typical Korean face,” one “from ancient, ancestral Korea.” She is rootless, reluctant to acknowledge her yearning, let alone give in to it. When she visits an adoption center to find out more about her parents and realizes the organization must formally send requests to her birth mother and father, who will then decide if they want to respond, Freddie tries to remain impenetrable. But cracks in her charismatic façade become undeniable when she travels, with Tena as her translator and confidant, to Gunsan to meet her consenting father and the family that could have been hers.
There are no grand speeches, no sudden or dramatic upheavals, no twinkling score to mawkishly pull at your heartstrings. Return to Seoul carries itself with a gentle forcefulness. Language — the barriers and different effects of French, Korean, and, occasionally, English — becomes the method and medium to acknowledge the fractures inside Freddie, bringing up questions about how she sees herself and her place in the world. Is her refusal to step into Korean culture due to the decisions of her adoptive parents to raise her as if Korea weren’t a part of her? Where do her wounds begin? Where does the pain of her torn identity end?
During one of her visits to the adoption center, Freddie flips through a coffee-table book that documents international adoptions from Korea through the decades. These were particularly high in the 1970s and ’80s, often severing children from the cultures they were born into and plunging them into a consuming sea of whiteness. Chou charts this dynamic carefully, avoiding simplistic or blunt judgments. (Though he flounders once with a strange, uncontextualized departure into Freddie’s temporary work selling missiles. She believes it’s her destiny to help South Korea against North Korea “for peace, in theory.”) Ultimately, Chou doesn’t just point to the racial and cultural forces that shoot through Freddie’s life; he uses them to carefully consider her — her taste in men, how she dresses, the way she walks. In Return to Seoul, who we are, who we want to be, and who we’re running away from being are in ragged flux.
Bodies in Chou’s film are positioned in ways that reveal these internal complications: Hands are held awkwardly, a head is placed on a lap for comfort, arms and hair fly through the air of a club in a fit of dancing that resembles emotional exorcism. When Freddie first meets her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok) and his family, seated for a meal in a quiet restaurant far from the neon hiss of Seoul, they feel one another out, happening upon bruises with every desperate touch. Freddie’s grandmother (a captivating Hur Ouk-Sook) cries incessantly, refusing to mask her scars. Regret tumbles from her lips as she speaks of how Freddie’s parents had no choice; they did what they believed was best for her. Freddie recoils from the tears and affection, and without a shared language, no one fully understands the other. When asked if she’s married, Freddie curtly answers, “No, I’m alone,” a response of plural meaning. Her father stumbles over his desire to get to know her and ease the tension, but she refuses his kindness time and time again. He wants to buy her something, and she accepts some blush-pink ballet flats — but not without tossing over her shoulder in French to Tena that she hates such shoes. She will eventually leave the pair, a physical emblem of her father’s desire to bridge the chasm between them, near a bench in the woods. Chou holds on the shot of the shoes, imbuing the image with melancholy.
Chou smartly crafts quiet moments that cut into the spirit and leave a residue: Freddie vehemently telling her aunt, “I’m French now. I’m not going to live in Korea”; Freddie’s grandmother, her hands in her hair struggling for a deeper connection, crying with happiness tinged with the salt of regret, “My baby, I’m sorry”; Freddie’s father’s wife, the mother of her half-sisters, handing Freddie a translation device with three sentences on its screen, “Every time my husband drinks, he cries and speaks of you. The next day he forgets everything. I am glad that you have come back.” Indeed, Freddie’s father “spews his sorrow” onto her, as she puts it. One night, as Freddie strolls down a dark alley with a man she intends to fuck hanging on her, her father makes his presence known with the hot end of his cigarette. Her animosity and his need are apparent to them both. “Why won’t you speak to me?” he wonders aloud. Her answer comes in a scream.
But just when you think you have a handle on Freddie’s story and its careful rhythms, the film jumps forward two years. Freddie is now living in Seoul. Wearing oxblood lips and a raised collar that envelops her like a cocoon, she goes on a date with a much older white Frenchman, André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). She’s momentarily open with him: “I’m 27 today. Did my mother think about me? Somewhere?” The film jumps again, to five years later, as Freddie, now in her 30s with a white boyfriend, returns to Seoul under the guise of work and connection. The closing chapter is set one year later with Freddie once again transformed, this time against the backdrop of the Romania. She’s a woman forever transforming, forever searching for the person she actually wants to be.
Park’s face charts these shifts over time. She’s ravaged, hungry, needy, angry, a hellion slicked with sweat before retreating, opaque and guarded once more. Park understands her angles and the ways that clenching her jaw just so, swaying with music like a palm tree against a hurricane, or letting her eyes go flinty can alter the light and how she inhabits it. In the final moments of the film, her face filling the frame once more, her head tilted down toward her phone, Freddie faces an emotional loss in a minor key. The way she winces, her eyes desperately searching for an answer that will not come, demonstrates tremendous interiority and understanding. It is in the grooves of her beauty, the clarity of her emotion, that we come to understand Freddie’s life as a fable written upon sand.