'Return to Seoul' (2023) Review/Analysis

There is an old proverb passed down amongst the people of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that, when translated, roughly amounts to: “None but a mule denies his family.” It is to make note that there is a physiological nature within one that causes them to seek out one’s related blood; not only that, but to find acceptance within them. Family, or sadly lack thereof for some, is a permanent and crucial aspect in one’s identity in a spiraling world capable of swallowing up someone whole if they haven’t any foundation to stand upon.

Such is the partially tragic story that we witness in Davy Chou’s beautifully gut-wrenching “Return to Seoul,” a feature film recently opened to audiences in Pittsburgh for Carnegie Mellon’s Annual International Film Festival. The film follows Freddie (Ji-Min Park), a 25 year-old French woman who was born in South Korea in the late 1980s but was put up for international adoption due to circumstances. As she does not speak Korean nor considers herself Korean, she has it in her mind to attempt to rejoin with her biological parents as a means of acquiring answers.

Booking a flight to Seoul, she meets with Hammond Adoption Center and is told the Center’s policy of being able to send a telegram to her parents to see if they would like to meet with her. She is told that if they accept, they can be in contact with one another, but if they refuse, Hammond will have to close the case indefinitely. Freddie opts to send a telegram, and manages to get in contact with her father, thus beginning her journey.

Soon enough within the picture, we find out the type of person which Freddie is, alongside how outcast she is from the sobriety and rigid couth of Korean lifestyle. Raised within modern Western enlightenment, she doesn’t share the extreme repulsion to things such as lewd and obscene actions that the far more conservative country like Korea has. For her, a night could be drinking and dancing at a club, only to wake up the next morning in bed with a stranger, and as chaotic as such a lifestyle is, it is that lifestyle she prefers to what she would be subjected to in Korea.

Meeting her father (Oh Kwang-rok), she finds that he is divorced from her mother, often drinks in emotion, and sends drunk emails to her on how sorry he is for leaving her. This causes her to feel uncomfortable, of the opinion that she has no emotional or tangible connection to this man. She leaves him in a more lonely place than when she started, and is continuously harassed by her father, who wishes that she come live with him in Korea so he can help her marry a Korean man. She reverts back to her way of living and when angrily followed by her drunk biological father, she screams at him that she never wants to see him again. In her inhibition for any meaningful connection with anyone, she is declared by her only friend, Tena (Guka Han), “a very sad person”, and loses her.

Fast forward two years, we watch the life that Freddie made for herself. In a party scene, we are subjected to flashing lights and blaring music enough to make any person feel sick. Freddie is, in fact, a sad person who sees no value in the pursuit of intimacy and for so many years, tries to contact her mother. Without anyone to rely on for any emotional support, she would rather bury her feelings and drink and party to find any meaning in her life.

Eventually, something does snap inside of her to change the way that she lives and seek some form of help. Five years later, she meets her father once again, and tells him that she became a weapons dealer, sending weapons of war to countries for the sake of peace, in theory, and wishes to try to meet with her mother once more. After seven total years of telegrams, she eventually gets to meet her mother, which causes all of those deep-seated emotions spill out of her eyes.

Sadly, she loses contact with her mother, and the only connection that remains is in the form of an email, which fails to send a text a year later, stating that she is finally happy with her life. She ends the message with her Korean name, signifying that she has come to terms with her identity.

The film does leave a lasting impression on the viewer. I don’t believe that it is a criticism of the bureaucracy of the international adoption center system, as life would objectively be worse without it. The closest the film ever comes to criticizing it is stating that it manages to protect the parents more than the kids when it should ideally be the other way around. The film, more likely is to be seen as a personal journey of a single individual without any greater political statement, as it is based off of a real woman who is also a French-adopted Korean woman.

To typical Western audiences, they may be thrown aback by the brutal nature of the film when it comes to the senseless portrayal of a hedonistic lifestyle and mistake it for a romanization of it. In the theatre, after watching a party scene that was so loud and seizure-inducing that one has no choice but to squint or look away, a lady in the seat in front of me turned to her husband and asked “Do you think she’s going to kill herself at the end?” as if such would be a resolute ending to this story. Still it is within the realm of possibility that such an ending could be construed to make a point. The film, however, takes a more optimistic approach.

In the first scene, we see Freddie describe how she sees sight-reading music as a philosophy that she applies to life. During sight-reading, one must put themselves within the middle of the music and be careful not to mess up, subjecting themselves to the “danger” of mistakes, but otherwise creating a beautiful melody. The ending of the film has her playing a piano, where she manages to sight read the piece on the music desk. As with playing piano, one must join both hands to cooperate in crafting the melody. She has learned to find peace in who she is as a Korean-born French woman, and to herself, she is happy.