An adoptee explores her Korean roots in Return To Seoul, Davy Chou’s engaging drama premiering at Cannes in Un Certain Regard. Newcomer Park Ji-Min plays the magnificently complex Freddie, who was raised in France and has impetuously decided to spend a couple of weeks in the country of her birth.
There, Freddie befriends the first person she meets: Tena (Guka Han), who works at the funky little hotel Freddie is staying in. Tena gently encourages Freddie to visit the adoption agency, who offer to contact her birth parents. But Freddie’s encounters with her father aren’t easy.
The film then enters its second act, picking up on her life years later, while a third act continues her story, rather than concluding it. This is not a tale of harmonious endings, but an exploration of a character trying to come to terms with her past.
Park Ji-Min is an artist who was recommended for the role of Freddie by Chou’s friend, and then played a part in shaping the character. She does a terrific job. Mercurial, blunt, charismatic and often rude, Freddie is the kind of young woman you see more in real life than on screen. If she were sexualized and/or the object of a hero’s affections, she might be a Manic Pixie Dream girl, but thankfully she’s not.
There’s an electric scene in the first act where Freddie suddenly decides to bring strangers together in a restaurant-bar, putting them all on the same table and enjoying the results. She often breaks the conventions of etiquette and defies Korean tradition, something her birth family finds difficult.
Her biological father (Oh Kwang-Rok) is also fascinating: riddled with guilt, often drunk and tearful. Neither of them have a language in common, so it’s down to Tena to translate, or for Freddie’s biological aunt to attempt English. Much is lost in translation, and it’s often darkly funny.
It’s a little disappointing when the action skips to a different part of Freddie’s life: the film is almost a victim of its own success after such an involving first act. But in each of the final two acts, there are gems, from Freddie’s date with an arms dealer to a very moving scene in the adoption center.
Costume designer Claire Dubien does terrific work showing the evolution of her character, who morphs from funky city type to slick punky party girl and beyond.
Freddie’s journey is complicated, and the structure reflects that. It’s a journey worth taking.