Return to Seoul, the best movie you didn’t see last year, is finally out

Winford Hunter

Sometimes a great movie gets buried, for whatever reason, in the end-of-year awards rush. But if you talk to those who experienced its magic before the rush began, you’ll get an effusive collar grab, a gentle shake, and a declaration that you must see this movie, you simply must. Back away slowly if you need, but know that the praise comes from some deep-rooted place, a belief that if you see this movie you’ll love it, too.

So I stand before you now, insisting you see Return to Seoul.

Technically Return to Seoul — the second fiction feature from Cambodian-French director Davy Chou — is a 2022 release, and it was No. 4 on my list of the best films of 2022. But in the weird time-space warp that is the movie release calendar, what that means is it got a “qualifying run” in 2022: it played at least a week in New York and Los Angeles, thereby rendering it eligible for awards according to the rules of the Oscars and many other voting bodies.

But that was just a blip. Now that it’s in proper release, I’ve been able to revisit the film, which I first saw at Cannes last May. I walked in with very little idea of what to expect, and left with a full heart.

A group of four Korean young people sits around a table littered with beer bottles.

When we first meet her, Freddie is a chaos agent.
Sony Pictures Classics

Return to Seoul centers on Freddie (Park Ji-min, whose performance is so good you’ll be startled to know it’s her first), a 25-year-old French woman who was adopted from Korea as an infant. She grew up in the French countryside, and now she lives in Paris. But she’s in Seoul when we meet her, and immediately registers as a bit of an agent of chaos. She breaks rules. She coaxes a bunch of strangers in a restaurant to form one big party, and they drink very late into the night. And, seemingly against her own will, she goes to Hammond, the adoption agency that maintains her records, and those of hundreds of thousands of other children adopted from Korea in the 1980s and 1990s.

That choice puts her on a fateful path, and from there you sort of think you know where this story is going. It’s an adoptee’s tale, one that delicately deals with Freddie’s deep-rooted feelings of abandonment by her birth parents. It seems she’s buried her sense of being an outsider deeply, and the film subtly brings them to a simmer, then a hot boil. Freddie insists she’s French, but once she connects with her family’s roots — which seem to fascinate and also repel her — she isn’t sure where she fits. The results of this inner turmoil play out over years.

That’s what’s so good about Return to Seoul: it keeps shapeshifting. Freddie, we realize, has already spent her life thinking, even subliminally, about the selves she isn’t, the lives she didn’t lead. But here, Chou extends Freddie’s questioning of the lives she could have led into the future. Each time jump gives us a new version of Freddie, one that’s in dialogue with the past versions and also struggling to find a way forward into the future.

In this way, Return to Seoul shares a great deal of DNA with one of 2023’s best films, the recent Sundance debut Past Lives. In that film, the main character also must grapple with a life she left behind as a child in Korea, and the person she might have been. It’s a resonant, existential question, and in a rapidly globalizing world, it’s particularly interesting to see that directors with roots in several distinct cultures — Chou in France and Cambodia, Past Lives’s director Celine Song in Canada and Korea — are best equipped to tackle an experience that resonates more broadly. The specificity of their experiences, and their characters’ experiences, make them more powerful for the audience; we understand their feeling of being between worlds, and can map it onto our own version of that feeling.

In Return to Seoul, all of this is rendered against a rich, slightly grainy backdrop of Seoul, often seen at night in inky blackness and bright lights. Chou gives Park several lengthy scenes of dancing in which a kaleidoscope of emotions play across her face and body, letting us know that there’s a lot more to Freddie than she’s letting everyone — and us — really access. It’s a gorgeous film, and Chou’s camera moves in a way that frames and heightens Freddie’s emotion. This is a mood piece, at times one with almost abstract aims, and it’s a joy to be swept away in it.

Freddie’s chaotic edge keeps resurfacing, which means by the end of the film we don’t know exactly what’s in store for her. Thank goodness. In her early essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion wrote that “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be,” a sentiment that seems drawn straight from Freddie’s life. Free-spirited and periodically tortured, Freddie doesn’t seem like much of a journal-keeper, it’s true — but a movie like Return to Seoul records her life anyhow, and works like a memory device, triggering memories of the selves we used to be and the ones we might yet become.

Return to Seoul opens in limited theaters on February 17.

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