Following Frédérique ‘Freddie’ Benoît, a woman adopted from Korea by a French family as a baby, Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul is a tender and heart-wrenching exploration of both the adoption system and the human need for connection.
As the name implies, Freddie returns to Seoul on a whim and attempts to reconnect with her birth parents. Caught between two worlds, Freddie finds herself a stranger in both. She is detached from her friends and family in France, seeking to discover her country of origin but finds her bluntness and brutal honesty at odds with polite Korean society. Her words are deliberately mistranslated by her friend Tena to save face, while her Korean relatives attempt to shoehorn her into a life for which she has no desire.
We see Freddie return to Seoul multiple times throughout her life, each time with a different cast of characters around her as she desperately seeks a place to belong. Her loneliness perpetuates a self-destructive spiral that causes her to push everyone around her away. It’s hard to watch, and the audience finds themselves yearning to reach out and embrace her as her isolation remains the only recurrent feature of her life. It’s a credit to Park Ji-Min’s powerful performance that even in Freddie’s most cruel and hurtful moments, she remains a deeply tragic figure.
Chou doesn’t shy away from showing the flaws in the global adoption process either, one that often protects parents but leaves adoptees floundering without support. It’s an inevitable viewpoint considering that the film is inspired by Chou’s friend Laure Badufle, herself an adoptee originally born in Korea. Serving as script consultant, Badufle’s input brings an authenticity to the film, reminding us that the problems addressed are more than fiction.
As one might expect, Return to Seoul is steeped in Korean culture and history. The audience join Freddie as she discovers new customs that seem at odds with her own. While it would be easy then to think of the themes and issues as being specifically Korean, there’s actually a deep universality at play. The film seamlessly switches between French, English, and Korean, never lingering on one language more than the other and often featuring all three at once. The closing moments, set jarringly in a Romanian hotel, remind us that the global adoption process and its problems are greater and far more global than what is portrayed here.
Despite its exploration of these issues, Return to Seoul is still a uniquely human drama, carried by the strength of Park’s incredible performance. It wonderfully captures that all too familiar emotion of wanting to belong and the impact of what happens when this is denied.
Return to Seoul is in cinemas now and streaming on Mubi from Fri 7 July 2023.