Return to Seoul: a delicate exploration of what it means to belong

A young woman takes an impulsive trip to Seoul in search of her birth parents in Davy Chou’s shapeshifting story of identity and self-exploration.

Return to Seoul (2022)
Return to Seoul (2022)Courtesy of MUBI

“Loosely based upon the life of Laure Badufle”, reads an intertitle in the credits of Return to Seoul. Laure Badufle is a friend of the film’s director, Davy Chou, and an adoptee from South Korea raised by a French family. In 2011, Chou – who is French-Cambodian – accompanied Badufle to a meeting with her biological father, which she was nervous to attend alone and for which she required a French-Korean translator. The unexpected emotional intensity of what Chou witnessed – the meeting was, he told the New York Times earlier this year, “sad, heavy, but also a bit funny – in the way a tragedy can be funny” – was the spark for this film.

Our adoptee becomes Freddie, played by Park Jimin, a headstrong young woman who makes the impulsive decision to visit her country of birth when a planned trip to Japan is ruled out by a typhoon. A spontaneous friendship with hotel worker Tena (Guka Han), who speaks French, stirs in Freddie a desire to know more about her Korean roots – but also highlights how far away she is from them. Where Tena is timid and formal, and makes much of kindness and custom, Freddie is moody and outspoken, and gets a kick out of making people uncomfortable.

These characteristics are presented not only as specific to these two women, but as expressive of the cultures in which they were raised. Can a young woman raised to value spontaneity, frankness and individualism find worth in a culture more inclined to prize reticence and the collective good? And can that culture find worth in her? Freddie charges on in, contacting the national adoption agency and having them contact her birth parents for her – but the route to any kind of resolution will be fraught. What, after all, does Freddie expect to find out about herself?

It’s a question that goes straight to the heart of some very current cultural neuroses. The idea that behavioural tendencies affix to race or nationhood at all is unfashionable, associated as it is with historical notions of superiority and inferiority. Yet we also occupy an era singularly preoccupied with origins, heredity and the respectful acknowledgment of cultural sensitivities and differences. Anyone who has made their home far from their birthplace, or who simply travels a lot, knows that social and cultural differences are often neither subtle nor trivial – yet it still feels subversive to have (Korean) characters talk as openly as they do here about Freddie having a “Korean face”, let alone whether or not she has “pure Korean traits”.

Freddie’s situation affirms the ineffable importance of knowing at least something of your own origins, but at the same time highlights the limitations of an identity politics based on authenticity or innate belonging. Is Freddie Korean because her genes are Korean, even though she neither remembers Korea nor relates to what Korean-ness seems to ask of her? Is she French because the only life she remembers is French? Does it matter?

Implicitly, and no less awkwardly, Freddie has also changed social class. She’s affluent enough, we learn in passing, to have made regular recreational trips to Japan; she has the sophistication and brash self-assurance of moneyed youth. Her birth father (Oh Kwangrok), whom she meets first, has had no such opportunities and evinces no such swagger. He is rural, shy, stricken with emotion upon encountering her, and a drunk.

Freddie’s extreme sullenness upon meeting him is certainly his belated punishment for rejecting her – but it may also contain an element of snobbery. These are her people, but they aren’t her kind of people. A pair of pink shoes becomes poignantly emblematic of Freddie’s father’s need, and of her hostility. Desperate to please her, he buys them for her from a roadside vendor. She abandons them under a park bench.

Park Jimin as Freddie in Return to Seoul (2022)
Park Jimin as Freddie in Return to Seoul (2022)Courtesy of MUBI

That Freddie also drinks to excess is a possible example of a ‘Korean trait’ – the role of drinking in Korean culture is emphasised in the film – but also serves here as a reminder that there’s not much point trying to find out who you are if you have trouble remembering where you’ve been. Perceptions of the role of alcohol in this film may vary according to the viewer’s own relationship with it, but one interpretation is that the relationship Freddie really needs to sort out is the one she has with booze.

It’s a slight surprise when what seems like a small, localised story of self-exploration takes a temporal leap – five years into its own future, then a further three. But the shift in time reminds us that such a young woman is still evolving in terms of her own behaviour and self-presentation; that an identity crisis doesn’t vanish overnight; and that it’s no straightforward matter for a mother to reconcile with an adult child whom someone else has raised.

Freddie does not become easier company, however, nor give more away about how she really feels – and that can get wearing. We continue to get rather too much of her being spectacularly selfish while gentler people fret in her wake. A development whereby an older Frenchman gets her involved in arms dealing is intellectually and morally interesting, but it feels unmoored because we know so little about Freddie’s actual skills and interests, and risks being too blunt a metaphor for her moral disconnectedness.

The eventual encounter between Freddie and her birth mother, however, sweeps all awkwardness away. It is splendidly handled, with delicacy, openness and an awareness that there’s simply no straightforward nor correct way for either woman to feel in this situation.

Also wonderfully portrayed, throughout the film, is Freddie’s relationship with her father’s sister, played by Kim Sunyoung. While Freddie sulks and her father self-flagellates, Freddie’s aunt is indefatigably affectionate and touching in her efforts to understand Freddie’s world. She embodies both the power of uncomplicated affection and the hope of change; in doing so she reminds us that cynicism and self-reliance are not necessarily the mature choices they can seem when you’re very young.

Learning that Freddie now deals in weapons, she asks with polite alarm, “For war?” “For peace – in theory,” Freddie responds. It is in that gap – between self-protection and exposure; between theory and reality – that this spirited, stimulating film finds its resonance.

 ► Return to Seoul is in cinemas Friday 5 May.