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30 June 2023

Return to Seoul: a film made with more genius than cash

In this fantastic, low-budget film, a French-Korean woman adopted at a young age returns to the place of her birth.

By David Sexton

Biggest isn’t always best. The seventh instalment in the Mission: Impossible franchise, Dead Reckoning Part One, is released on 10 July. It’s always rewarding to see how Tom Cruise’s running is holding up, but will its enormous budget produce anything of equal intellectual interest?

Return to Seoul, made on a modest budget with 29 days of filming in Korea and two in Romania, is the third film by 39-year-old French-Cambodian director Davy Chou. It concerns the international adoption of South Korean children, which began at the end of the Korean War in 1953 but continued for decades,  with some 200,000 children being adopted up until the late 1980s.

Chou accompanied a friend, Laure Badufle, who was adopted by a French family, to meet her biological father in Korea when she was in her twenties, an encounter that, like many such returns, did not prove easy, the natural difficulties being complicated by fundamental linguistic and cultural incomprehensions.

The director turned Badufle’s story into a script, despite, as he says, not being adopted, Korean or a woman himself. But this fantastic film is just as much the creation of its star, Park Ji-min, a French-Korean visual artist who had never acted before. She gives an extraordinary performance as Freddie, a woman in her early twenties, adopted as a baby by a well-off French couple, now visiting Seoul for the first time. Freddie – wilful, disruptive, positively unkind – refuses to conform to the role others expect of her, drawn from racist stereotypes of Asian women. She’s a force of nature, her incredibly expressive face, repeatedly seen in extended close-up, holding the whole movie.

Park, as can be seen in on-stage interviews with Chou, is self-possessed in just this way, looking about her with the pitiless attentiveness of a hawk. The film is a collaboration, she says in these interviews: when she read Chou’s script she questioned every scene, and if they hadn’t been changed, away from the male gaze she found there, she wouldn’t have taken part. He nods. Return to Seoul never feels like the work of a male director, never lapses into that familiar emphasis.

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[See also: The Night of the 12th Review: a grim look at an unsolved murder]

We meet Freddie as she checks in to a hostel in Seoul and picks up its sweet-natured, French-speaking receptionist, Tena (Guka Han), spending the evening with her in a bar, baffling the other young Koreans she approaches who don’t understand how she can be French with such an “ancestral Korean face”. She spends the night with a boy while so drunk that she can’t remember if they had sex or not. So next morning she makes sure they do. And then spontaneously goes to the adoption agency to track her biological parents.

She meets her repair-man father (Oh Kwang-rok), with Tena not just interpreting but softening Freddie’s harsh responses when he begs her to stay in Korea. He is abjectly sorry, calling her and texting her unintelligibly when drunk. She dismisses him. This first section ends with Freddie cruelly dispatching her lovelorn conquest, dancing alone and inviting Tena to visit her in France.

Two years later, Freddie’s still in Seoul, completely changed (her look inspired by Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road). After hooking up with a French arms dealer, she returns to the man she lives with, a Korean tattoo artist, who surprises her with a birthday party, though she hates birthdays. Again she loses herself in dance.

Five years later, she’s in Korea with dopey young Frenchman Maxime in tow. She’s vegetarian, sober, mindful – and working for that arms dealer. She meets her father again, and it’s better: he’s drinking less and learning the piano. But when Maxime observes in a cab that she looks just like her dad, she says: “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers.”

Return to Seoul has no easy reconciliation, no happy ever after. Freddie finally meets her biological mother in a moving, wordless scene. In a last sequence, she’s different again, hiking alone in a wintry landscape, checking into another hotel, on her birthday. She sits at a piano and sight-reads some music that modulates into Bach. In that first bar scene, she said that reading a score, “you have to be able to analyse the music in one glance, evaluate the danger and jump in”.

Return to Seoul tackles directly the issues around the adoption of Korean children and what happens when they return, but this specificity gives it access to much larger questions of dislocation and belonging that affect all of us. In this way, it’s not unlike Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction. I loved it just as much as I loved last year’s Aftersun, another film made with more genius than cash. See it and then see it again.

“Return to Seoul” is in cinemas and on Mubi now

[See also: Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny review: a feeble last crack of the whip]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia