Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” is a fast one for the books, a film that (contrary to so much of contemporary cinema) delivers exponentially more than it promises. It begins as a modest, observational slice-of-life drama and slowly transforms into a movie about the lies we tell ourselves — about who we are, what we feel, and what we need.
We meet Freddie (Park Ji-Min) as she’s checking into a guest house in Seoul. She’s 25 years old and strikingly beautiful; Tena (Guka Han), who checks her in, vibes with her immediately, and their chemistry is so palpable that Chou seems to be staging a meet-cute. Freddie visiting from France, and the playful energy of these opening scenes deliberately recalls the French New Wave, especially after Tean’s pal Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom) joins them and seems to set up a “Bande a part” or “Jules et Jim” riff.
But there’s much more happening here. Frankie is visiting South Korea seemingly on a whim, with only a vague notion of her past there; it was her country of birth, but she was given up for adoption as a baby and raised in France. “Are you going to try and find your parents?” Tean asks her, and the “No” is immediate. Dongwan nevertheless directs her to Seoul’s primary adoption agency, and after Frankie wakes up next to a stranger (“Do it again, is that okay with you?”), she decides she may as well try to find her parents.
It seems an impulsive act and, therefore, par for the course for Freddie; we’ve already seen her general gregariousness and how she’ll use her beauty and freewheeling nature to make friends (and make herself the center of attention). She gets much more than she bargains for when her father (Oh Kwang-rok) responds to her overtures. He summons her for a visit, and it’s a wildly uncomfortable one, filled with long, awkward silences, failed attempts to connect or interact, and painful interactions with her biological grandmother and the wife and children her father found after her birth. “Every time my husband drinks, he cries and speaks of you,” the poor woman tells her. Freddie realizes rather quickly that she’s made a huge mistake and understandably cuts the visit short.
This all sounds mildly soapy or perhaps syrupy, so the lightness of Chou’s touch cannot be overstated – nor can the purity of his intentions. There’s no shortage of plot in his screenplay, but this is not a film about what happens. It’s about who it happens to and how she responds to it. We think we clock Freddie the moment we see her, just as Tena believes she does, as some kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but it becomes clear (and pretty quickly) that her bravado and self-confidence hide a genuine sense of fear and uncertainty. Her trip to Seoul was less a mission of flightiness than desperation; “I just needed to go somewhere,” she confesses later, and to Cbou’s credit, the more time we spend with her, the more he lets us piece together who she is and what’s driving her.
Around the midpoint, after that disastrous trip, Frankie dances in a bar with what looks to the casual observer like carefree abandon. But it’s a charade; she’s trying, and perhaps too hard, to appear wild and fun, to stave off all the misery and dissatisfaction of her situation. When we first saw her in those early scenes, this seemed like her personality. Now it’s clear that it’s the suit of armor she puts up to keep anyone from really knowing her and, thus, from hurting her. So this time, when Tena and Dogwan look at her, they see right through it – and when we meet her again a few years later, she seems to have her shit together, but that’s just as much of a mask as the party girl was.
None of this would be possible — indeed, “Return to Seoul” itself could fall apart — were it not for the extraordinary lead performance of Park Ji-Min. Astonishingly, this is her film debut, and she’s a force of life, the kind of actor who’s so magnetic you’ll watch her do just about anything. She sheds several skins throughout the course of this story, each as convincing as the last; she has a marvelous way of throwing off a line or registering a moment of intense emotion in a single, succinct expression (the embarrassing horror of her gaze as her biological grandmother sobs through grace, the numbness in her eyes in the back of the cab). Most importantly, and most poignantly, she pulls the threads of the performance together at its emotional climax, in which all the masks, all the facades, and all the pretenses crumple and crumble in a single moment. “Return to Seoul” begins as an intimately off-the-cuff stranger-in-strange-land story and becomes a sprawling epic of personal discovery. It’s one of the best films of the year. [A]