Regresso a Seul
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Return to Seoul

4 out of 5 stars

Heartbreaking performances light up this intimate but tumultuous story of diaspora

Kambole Campbell

Time Out says

South Korea was one of the world’s largest exporters of adopted children between the ’50s and the early noughties. Many of those two hundred thousand or so children were brought into white American and European families, the fallout of which is still being unpacked. Frédérique, or ‘Freddie’, played by newcomer Park Ji-Min, was one such child: born in Korea but adopted and raised by French parents. In this naturalist drama, director Davy Chou charts Freddie’s attempts to come to terms with her tumultuous feelings towards her background, something that only becomes more complicated the more she finds out about her biological parents.

The emotional challenge of reconnecting with a place that you haven’t really been to is felt throughout Return to Seoul. A photo of Freddie’s birth mother – or the person she assumes is her mother – is her only memento of a country with which she has no familiarity. She doesn’t even speak the language and is treated like a foreigner – but also not, because she has an ‘ancestral and ancient Korean face’, as a group of drunk restaurant patrons speculate. Not long after a one-night stand, she begins a whirlwind reunion with her biological father. 

Chou charts Freddie’s long, uneasy journey of reconciling her dual heritage with close-up camerawork and patient writing. The French-Cambodian filmmaker gracefully charts her thorny near decade-long journey through broken relationships and a morally murky career. He leaves room for the captivating Park to express the full range of that experience, so that by the film’s end a small tremble of the lip lands with seismic impact. Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s eclectic score, full of off-kilter percussion, punctuates the observational drama with electrifying interludes.

This captivating story of diaspora is a quiet gem

Freddie remains compellingly a chaotic protagonist, bristling at her biological family’s probings and the way they project their lingering heartbreak over her adoption onto her. Chou’s psychologically acute script shows how she protects herself through her erratic behaviour. ‘I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers,’ she mutters in one of the film’s most uncomfortable scenes, as if pushing her loved ones away helps her regain a sense of control over herself – however toxic that may be. 

It’s one of the many emotional contradictions at the heart of Return to Seoul. The impossibility of bridging the gap with her would-be family and estranged birthplace is shown with bittersweet insight. This captivating story of diaspora is a quiet gem.

In UK cinemas May 5. Streaming exclusively on MUBI Jul 7.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Davy Chou
  • Screenwriter:Davy Chou, Laure Badufle
  • Cast:
    • Kim Sun-Young
    • Oj Kwang-Rok
    • Park Ji-Min
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