While there is some obvious talent and consideration that went into the production of “Return to Seoul,” the movie ultimately lacks a strong character to tie its winding network of themes together.
“Return to Seoul” is the latest film from French-Cambodian director Davy Chou. The film follows 25-year-old Freddie, (Park Ji-Min) who was born in South Korea but adopted by French parents. She arrives in Seoul after her flight to Tokyo was canceled. Although she claims she did not come to the country to track down her parents, Freddie goes to an adoption agency with hopes of finding her biological parents. This task ends up being far more complicated and emotionally exhausting than Freddie could ever anticipate.
One of the most striking aspects of “Return to Seoul” is the lead performance from Ji-Min. This is Ji-Min’s first role in a feature film, and she does an excellent job at selling her character’s impulsive and cold tendencies. Oh Kwang-rok delivered my favorite performance in the film as Freddie’s Korean father. When Kwang-rok needed to reach deep into his emotional register to deliver a heartfelt plea to Freddie, I was absolutely convinced by his heartbreak.
The atmosphere of “Return to Seoul,” both in a literal and metaphorical sense, was great. The skies in the movie are a constant mix of overcast, dark or pouring with rain. This lends a pervading sense of misery throughout the film, reflective of how hopelessly lost Freddie’s sense of identity is. The cinematography also props up this listlessness, leaving her boxed in or isolated in otherwise wide open spaces.
Additionally, there’s some compelling thematic depth to chew on in “Return to Seoul.” Freddie herself is a native Korean who rejects her identity, constantly insisting she’s French. She refuses to learn the language, only ever speaking English and French. This leads Freddie to be alone and surprised to connect with her biological parents.
When she later goes into the weapons trade, selling missiles to South Korea, it is an act she claims is to keep the peace, but as locals point out, it only helps to fuel the war. Freddie’s own naiveness leaves her estranged from her own culture, ultimately leaving her without a proper identity.
The main problem with “Return to Seoul” is that Freddie herself is an incredibly poorly realized character. While I certainly understand what she represents on a thematic level, the actual emotional creature behind those themes feels all but impenetrable to me. Freddie herself never feels properly characterized.
Stunningly, a character who is symbolically meant to be empty and estranged, feels shallow and unrealized. I ended up feeling like I was projecting emotions and ideas onto her rather than those ideas being consciously written into the script. The emotional catharsis she reaches by the end of the film feels unearned and hollow, by virtue of this lack of proper definition.
There is undoubtedly care put into the craft of “Return to Seoul,” but the character at the center of the film is not interesting enough to sustain the movie’s two hour runtime. Despite all the tasks the script allocates to Freddie, she feels like a blank slate for the audience to project their own insecurities onto, rather than actually flesh her out properly. I give “Return to Seoul” a 5/10.
If you are someone who tends to appreciate films for their formal and thematic qualities, I definitely recommend “Return to Seoul” to you. It’s entirely possible you will get more out of the central character than I did. There is no doubt some thought put into this film, so for that alone it gets a pass from me, even if I did not personally connect with it.