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'Return to Seoul' is about reinvention, not resolution

Park Ji-Min stars as Freddie in <em>Return to Seoul.</em>
Sony Classics
Park Ji-Min stars as Freddie in Return to Seoul.

Return to Seoul is a film that's easy to love: it has a killer soundtrack, a magnetic protagonist, and a gorgeous cinematic backdrop filled with rich colors and empty bottles of Soju. At its core, it tells a coming of age story — one that challenges the confines of "childhood" and "adulthood" and contemplates the impermanence of who we are.

Davy Chou's third feature film revolves around a 25-year-old French adoptee named Frédérique Benoît (Park Ji-Min), Freddie for short, and her quest to track down her biological parents in South Korea. Freddie is impulsive, electric and effortlessly cool; she does what she wants and arrives in Seoul spontaneously with no knowledge of the culture or language. At the hotel, she befriends a young French-speaking Korean woman named Tena (Guka Han), who suggests she pay a visit to the Hammond Adoption Center. Freddie's mother leaves the agency's telegrams unanswered, but Freddie is able to get in touch with her biological father (Oh Kwang-Rok) — a man who is sorrowful, a bit of an alcoholic, and someone who desperately wants to right his wrongs from the last 20 or so years.

Although it is Freddie who initially seeks out her father, their encounter leaves her feeling more disconnected than when she came — and she begins to harbor a quiet resentment that often takes the shape of anger. When he asks her to move to Korea to live with his family, she adamantly says to her English-speaking aunt (Kim Sun-Young), "He has to understand that I'm French now. I have my family and friends over there. I am not going to live in Korea." When Freddie's father drunkenly shows up outside a club, begging for her to talk to him, she screams: "Don't touch me!" He is already on his knees.

The three-part film follows Freddie over the course of eight years; its color tones shift with her evolution — taking on hues of gray, deep reds and warm yellows. Freddie cuts her hair before letting it grow, moves from one lover to the next and pivots careers. But just when Freddie seems to have finally settled into herself, she surprises you. Does one really ever reach a final state of metamorphosis? Or do we just cycle between different versions of ourselves?

Freddie (Park Ji-Min) entertains new friends in <em>Return to Seoul.</em>
/ Sony Classics
Sony Classics
Freddie (Park Ji-Min) entertains new friends in Return to Seoul.

How Freddie chooses to exist is often most telling in moments where she thinks no one is looking: Pondering what her life could have been as she idly stares into a refrigerator filled with Korean groceries; manically laughing to herself after opening her father's birthday ecard; throwing her body across the dance floor. Park Ji-Min wields Freddie's expressiveness with such control, it's hard to believe that Return to Seoul is her first feature film.

Throughout the film, music pierces through boundaries of language and time. In one early scene, Freddie explains sight-reading as a skill that requires the musician to analyze a score at a glance, evaluate any potential dangers, and dive right in. It's the way Freddie approaches a new sheet of music and it's the way that she moves through life. Amidst broken translations and tough emotional walls, one of the few times Freddie is able to feel connected to her father is when he plays a song he composed for her.

Though Freddie is well into adulthood, her story is a meditation on reinvention. When Freddie meets her biological father, she is reborn again — to an unfamiliar family, in an unfamiliar place. But coming face to face with a missing piece from her past doesn't make her whole; it just introduces more questions. Return to Seoul is unconcerned with resolutions, and in fact, goes to great lengths to avoid them. Instead, it proposes that in a world full of uncertainty, you must dive right in, over and over — taking with you everything that has been and everything that has yet to come.

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Teresa Xie
Teresa Xie is a reporter who specializes in media and culture writing. She recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied political science and cinema. Outside of NPR, her work can be found in Pitchfork, Vox, Teen Vogue, Bloomberg, Stereogum and other outlets.