‘Return to Seoul’ Review: Found in Translation

On a whim, a Frenchwoman goes to visit South Korea, the country of her birth, in Davy Chou’s drama.

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By Amy Nicholson

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“Return to Seoul” is a startling and uneasy wonder, a film that feels like a beautiful sketch of a tornado headed directly toward your house. The first-time actor Park Ji-Min, a French artist, delivers a full-bodied performance as Frédérique Benoît, a reckless 25-year-old adoptee born in South Korea and raised in Paris who books a flight to her birthplace on a whim. Freddie doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t have the names of her biological parents, and doesn’t want to blend in. Nudged to obey the local custom of pouring alcohol only for others, she snatches a bottle of soju and chugs.

In this boozy opening sequence, the writer-director Davy Chou unleashes a character who, one senses, has never felt comfortable anywhere. Magnetic, sexy, mercurial and bold, Freddie is an object of fascination to everyone she meets: a bookish hotel clerk (Guka Han), a sweet-faced nerd who wants more than a one-night stand (Kim Dong-Seok), a grimy tattooer with a stash of psychedelics (Lim Cheol-Hyun) and an international arms dealer twice her age (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) who arranges a rendezvous on a hookup app.

Freddie craves stimulation, shifting personalities several times over the eight years of the film — tomboy to glamour punk to wellness drone — confessing that South Korea’s effect on her is “toxic.” The script, shot in vivid colors by the cinematographer Thomas Favel, doesn’t indulge in psychoanalysis. Still, it’s not hard to imagine how a kid who couldn’t help standing out in the schoolyard would grow into a misfit incapable of forming genuine bonds with those she meets and discards.

Chou himself is the French-born grandson of a Cambodian film producer who vanished in 1969 as the Khmer Rouge began to seize control and shred the country’s movie industry, and he seems to understand the contradictions in Freddie’s feeling that she’s been robbed of a life she doesn’t actually want to live. The director is intrigued by dislocation, and is attentive to both its dry specifics and its messy frustrations. The film credibly details the strict procedure through which South Korean adoption agencies connect children to their estranged families (telegrams!), yet the reveal that Freddie’s blood relatives named her Yeon-hee, meaning “docile and joyful,” lands like a bitter joke. Clearly, they never knew her in the slightest.

Park’s trickiest scenes are with the fantastic actor Oh Kwang-Rok as Freddie’s birth father, an air conditioning repairman who, like her, acts out when he’s drunk. Their time together feels both momentous and aggressively dull: awkward lunches, boring drives, stilted exchanges of banalities peppered with grand statements that strike Freddie as pushy and overly paternalistic. Barriers of language and resentment are difficult to surmount, especially when the acquaintance Freddie totes along to interpret pads their conversation with anxious politesse, making a frank talk frankly impossible.

When communication fails, music takes charge. Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s score is made of thrumming drums and insistent bleeps, building twice to explosions where Park dances with abandon, gyrating as though Freddie doesn’t care if she sees anyone in Seoul ever again. The camera chases after this human whirlwind, and we’re thrilled to be swept up in her storm.

Return to Seoul
Rated R for drug use and nudity. In Korean and French, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.

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