A whimsical choice changes the life of Freddie (newcomer Park Ji-Min), a twenty-five-year-old Frenchwoman who returns to South Korea years after she was adopted there. It’s a world never her own, and the adventure is compounded when she chooses to seek out her natural parents, but also by her reactions within a strange-to-her culture.
Breath to breath, sensation to sensation, rough, reckless Freddie (or Frederique) is as alive to what may come as does writer-director Davy Chou’s unpredictable, if based-on-fact mood piece (once bearing the evocative title, “All the People I’ll Never Be”).
The dislocation is palpable, existential questions ever-simmering: what puzzle is Freddie piecing? Her feelings are neither here nor there: but she herself, her body, her moment is present, ever-present. What does she want and would she truly want it if she knew the outcome? We think we want to know “who” we are, but what if that definition is resolutely elusive? What if our “selves” are fluid, from within and without, even without the lurking gazes of others? What is she rebelling against? Freddie seeks family, to no longer bear a sensation of being orphaned and alone in her emotional world. But she reaches, she reacts, she grates, she is quicksilver.
A bright world, an intoxicating world, a whirl of neon and soju and pregnant pauses, envelops Freddie in her quest, and the elliptical telling only fixes us onto the charismatic Park’s features, a magnetic face, first a dagger of stare, succeeded by a warm small bloom of smile. Chou’s style is more scansion than montage.
My breath is taken by the first two shots, a shot-countershot within the credits, close-ups of two women, a woman bearing headphones listening to a song in Korean that sounds French, who is surprised and apologetic, in English and in French, that she hadn’t noticed the customer; reverse on the close-up on the other face, and she smiles slightly, asking what the song is, “What… you listening?”
“It’s Korean… music.”
This is Freddie, smiling slightly, baring an imperfect, mercurial smile in slightest proportion.
Points to ear, “Can I?”
The timing is impeccably “off” and lingering.
She takes the headphones, listens, the song loud and bright again.
The women exchange glances. “How long you want to stay?” asks the first woman, revealing who is the clerk and who is the visitor.
Chou’s observation goes beyond competence and confidence: this is startling preamble. (And it’s also one of the first music cues dropped with laser-like precision.)
“I need your passport, please,” on the clerk’s face, her French-accented English. She looks at the passport: “But you’re French!”
And the main title takes the screen, in French: “Retour à Seoul.”
And after that credit: the clerk, a man and Freddie are at a table in a warm, common café… toasting soju. Speaking French, and challenging one another, details added as if by flicks of the wrist.
Years pass. Moments materialize and advance. Surprises and reversals mount. “Return to Seoul” is a hyperrealistic, beautiful dream, heartwarming and heartbreaking, electric, one warm or chilly sensation after another. This is the magic of great movies.
“Return To Seoul” opens Friday, March 3 at the Music Box and River East.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.