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‘Return to Seoul’: Portrait of a young woman, untethered

Michael O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – Freddie, a South Korean adoptee who grew up in France, makes friends with frightening ease in Return to Seoul, a carefully wrought character study of a person who lives life with careless abandon.

Shortly after we meet the protagonist – played with stunning self-assurance, in her screen debut, by Park Ji-min – Freddie has pulled together three tables of strangers for what might be called a group blind date at a Seoul restaurant. It’s worth noting that she’s there with Tena (Guka Han), the young woman who manages the guesthouse Freddie has just checked into – and who has already been seduced by her customer’s charm.

The trip itself was pure whim: Freddie had planned to travel to Japan but couldn’t get a ticket.

So she has ended up, coincidentally, it would seem, in the country in which she was born.

Everyone assumes she’s there to seek her past. And not long after declaring that she has no intention of tracking down her birth parents, Freddie flips, seeking out the assistance of the agency that arranged her adoption and ultimately setting up a meeting with her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok)

Park Ji-min in ‘Return to Seoul’. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Oh Kwang-Rok

But what might have followed the familiar path of culture shock and discovery of one’s roots, in this story by French Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou – Cambodia’s official Oscar submission – becomes something else entirely.

Just what is a little harder to say. Playing out over several years, and covering more feints and blind alleys than a maze, Return to Seoul jumps forward in time with only sporadic on-screen titles, leaving viewers to piece together exactly where and when Freddie is in her life, geographically, temporally and psychologically. One minute, she’s a tourist who’s meeting – and then rebuffing – the man who gave her up for adoption but who wants to make amends.

The next minute, she seems to have settled down in Seoul, living with a tattoo artist (Lim Cheol-Hyun) while bedding André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a French arms dealer in town for business.

Sometime later, after an automobile accident has left Freddie with a metal pin holding together her collarbone, we will discover that she’s working for André. She’s perfect for the job, he tells her, because she never looks back. And it’s true: Freddie turns to a boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer) at one point and said, “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers.” That’s the last we see of him.

There’s also something of a feint in the film’s title, which suggests a journey, or at least an endpoint. Return to Seoul begins in the South Korean capital, but it doesn’t end there – or anywhere, really. If Freddie is looking for something, it’s never quite clear what that is, which is a source of frustration. In an early scene, she refers to the ability to sight-read music: to pick up a page of sheet music and play, without rehearsal or fear.

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