In order to return somewhere, you first have to leave it. So it’s arguable whether the initial visit in Davy Chou’s strange, deep, changeable and wise “Return to Seoul” even qualifies in a meaningful sense as a return. 25-year-old Freddie (Park Ji-min), the film’s charismatic, mercurial protagonist, was adopted by French parents as a baby, and has no memory of the voyage that removed her from the country of her birth. But though she is the last to admit it, there is more to her jaunt to Korea than coincidence and idle curiosity. While Chou’s elliptical screenplay gently explodes many preconceived assumptions about the effects of adoption on adoptees, it is too clear-sighted to ignore the fact that whether biology affects identity or not, the mere possibility that such a link exists could exert a powerful attraction on a searching spirit not quite sure what it is searching for.
Set across eight dramatically transformative years in Freddie’s life, the film is divided in three, and rounded off with an epilogue — with the first section, detailing this first visit to Seoul, the longest and most straightforward. Glimmers of the self-possessed Freddie’s erratic extroversion do appear, as when she suddenly exhorts a whole restaurant full of strangers to gather and carouse around a single table, or when she casually picks up and sleeps with an acquaintance, only to coldly rebuff his more sincere subsequent attentions. But mostly, the film’s opening hour film loosely follows the expected arc of the adoption drama, as French-speaking Freddie, with useful new friend Tena (Guka Han) in tow as translator, hesitantly goes about tracking down her birth parents.
Her mother remains elusive; Freddie’s biological father (Oh Kwang-Rok, a Park Chan-wook regular) quite the contrary. Indeed, his overeager, rather clumsy attempt to reconnect after two-and-a-half decades of absence is perhaps the one reaction most certain to make his prodigal daughter recoil. Freddie is more affected by her origin story than she’ll admit, but she’s also prickly about it, as though resenting the idea that the complex, oddly magnetic person she has become could be reduced to a simple set of adoption-related psychological causes-and-effects.
The film seems to settle into a placid, melancholy rhythm, as Freddie’s brief stay nears its end and her father’s attempts to connect with her become more insistent: There’s a nice line in culture clash as Tena not only translates Freddie’s blunt demurrals, but softens and sweetens them so as not to hurt her father’s feelings. Then, abruptly, the setting changes. We’re still in Seoul but it’s two years later, and Freddie is slinking vampishly through the nighttime city in a sleek haircut and a black leather trench, having jettisoned her old friends and become the epicenter of a sexier set, part of the city’s glamorously seedy underground. Even the color palette used by DP Thomas Favel has changed, from pallid, misty daytime to sultry, neon-slick night, along with Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s excitingly variegated score, which now leans heavier into dark basslines and swishing percussion.
The last act leaps forward again, this time by five years, with Freddie putting her edge of amorality to work as an arms dealer, employed by one of her former hookups (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing). Even more surprisingly, she’s apparently happily coupled up with her handsome, supportive French boyfriend Maxime (Yoann Zimmer). This time, her return to Seoul on business is reluctant. But even as she even warns Maxime in the car that the city is “a toxic place for me,” you can see its strange effect on her, as though it were a catalyst for these dramatic personal transformations, and she can already feel the next version of herself beginning to pupate.
By this stage, the film itself has transformed, from adoption drama to character portrait and ultimately into a much more intriguing and intricate investigation of place and belonging — and how oftentimes the answers we get are less revealing of who we are than the process of asking the questions in the first place.
With this audaciously interrupted storytelling, “Return to Seoul” represents a step up in ambition from the woozily atmospheric yet comparatively simple narrative of Chou’s fiction feature debut, “Diamond Island,” which won the SACD prize in Critics’ Week at Cannes in 2016. But while “Return to Seoul” is more sharply focused in its minutiae, over its near two-hour length it accumulates a similarly heady, evocative mood: wistful without being wishy-washy; bittersweet without the slightest hint of twee. And this time, Chou has the lightning rod of Park Ji-min’s performance to conduct an enlivening electricity right into the film’s core. Park, a first-time actress tasked with bringing consistency to a character so divided against herself she could be three or four different people, embodies Freddie’s contradictions with riveting ease.
There’s a gentle irony to the epilogue when, after flitting toward and away from Seoul like a moth repeatedly burned by a lambent flame, we close with Freddie far away from Korea, in an undisclosed, apparently Eastern European location, stopping at a hotel after a long, solitary hike. Even here, alone at some rural waystation on her journey to who knows where, she feels the pull of the megacity on the other side of the world, as if some internal compass needle always points in its direction. Freddie dials long distance, but once again, it’s not the result of the call that matters, but the fact that she makes it. Perhaps, not just for adoptees and emigrants but for any of us blessed and cursed with that rootless, wanderlusting gene, that’s one definition of home: not the city of your birth, nor the house you were raised in, nor the apartment where you keep all your stuff, but the place you are always subconsciously coming back to; your place of eternal return.