Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul) is a vividly realized character study that stands as a compelling journey of self-discovery. It speaks to a universal need for human connection. Ironically, director Davy Chou creates this complex portrait of awakening through a mercurial lead whose motivations seem impenetrable. On the surface, her journey toward emotional fulfillment appears straightforward enough, but as this film deftly demonstrates, nothing is as simple as its facade suggests. There’s plenty burbling underneath.
Twenty-five-year-old Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Ji-Min Park in her acting debut) acts on an impulse and hops on a plane to Seoul, South Korea. She knows nothing about the country’s language or its customs. She is, at least at the outset, the typical stranger in a foreign land. But we soon learn Korea is the country of her birth and that she was adopted as a baby and raised in France. And now, apparently on a whim, she has decided to connect with her biological family.
Director Davy Chou is wildly inventive with this familiar trope. The success of Return to Seoul depends on the performance of lead and first-timer Ji-Min Park, and she does not disappoint; her performance is mesmerizing in its subtle nuance.
Chou uses an ingenious visual strategy that relies heavily on close-ups of her face—a face that stubbornly attempts to hide its secrets but ultimately cannot. This is the brilliance at the heart of Park’s performance. She walks that thin line between understatement and full emotional release with a skill that belies her inexperience.
Even when Chou widens the shots, the framing betrays Freddie’s emotions. In any experience that upsets her, she literally breaks away from the other characters. Her movements become frenetic and the camera follows her, shadowing her every move, copying her very energy.
Chou’s strategy reveals what Freddie is hiding, what she refuses to face. Then there’s a telling sequence in a bar when she flees a disturbing conversation to the dance floor. Even as her carefree movements fill the screen, we realize that the shot cuts her off, trapping her in its frame, underscoring the emotions behind her actions. The solution to her problems is not to merely run away.
Communication—or the lack thereof—is a key factor in this film. There are three different languages spoken onscreen (French, Korean and English), and at many times not very well. Not everyone knows a second language, let alone a third. The inability to communicate and fully understand each other is a core problem. One that leaves Freddie feeling isolated even when surrounded by friends or family.
At first, she makes little effort to learn Korean. But as the film progresses—and this character’s splendidly complicated arc develops—she begins to try. Return to Seoul becomes a story of how Freddie’s own detachment from people transforms into connection. In the end, the person she ultimately unites with is herself.
In Return to Seoul, Chou achieves the difficult task of creating a bewildering yet fully absorbing character that we want to follow. This inscrutable character’s actions don’t always make a lot of sense, but we end up forming a deep emotional attachment thanks to the director’s electrifying style. His insistence on keeping his camera tightly trained on his character’s every move is absolutely critical. Both the film and its protagonist possess an electrifying aura that is infinitely compelling and not soon forgotten.
Return to Seoul opens in limited release Friday, March 3.