Life can be defined in all sorts of ways. The meaning that we find in it, especially in our modern era, is often shaped by our choices. Existence precedes essence, as Jean-Paul Sartre articulated. But it’s not quite as clean as that. Occasionally, we find that questions of meaning refuse to be wrangled by our best attempts at self-determinism. Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul depicts the back and forth of that battle for personal identity in a chaotic and discomfiting, yet ultimately, humanistic film.
Return to Seoul confronts us with its protagonist’s mercurial nature immediately. Checking into a hostel on her first trip to South Korea, Freddie Benoît (Ji-min Park) asks to borrow the headphones of Tena, the reception agent, to hear what she’s listening to. It surprises Tena somewhat, but she obliges. Later, when Tena invites Freddie out to dinner with her and another friend, Freddie confounds them both by inviting nearly the entirety of the restaurant to merge tables and form one large party—a party that will go very late into the night and end with a drunken hookup.
It’s all part of what Freddie calls sight reading. It’s her creed: she evaluates the danger of any given moment and jumps in. “It’s the stakes you have to face.”
All this occurs in roughly the first fifteen minutes, forming a rather destabilizing opening. Every choice that Freddie makes defies our expectations. But our expectations of what, exactly? We don’t know her at all; why do we have expectations of her? Perhaps these are expectations of her merely as a character in a story, that is, the expectation that we can relate to her, or place ourselves in her shoes. But Chou and Park allow us no such ease of empathy. Maybe our expectations are simply based on typical story structure itself: we assume that the plot will progress intuitively even though we are unfamiliar with this place and these people. Again, Chou intentionally undercuts any assumption of familiarity.
Return to Seoul kicks off with an energy that is at once stressful and beautiful. The jarring nature of Freddie’s characterization and Chou’s filmmaking recalls the verve of the French New Wave. It’s a brazen start, and a fitting one. We’re forced to admit that we don’t We know Freddie at all, and we begin to understand just how difficult it is to define her.
Freddie has come to South Korea on a whim from France—the child of Koreans, she was adopted as a baby by French parents. Despite looking familiar in Seoul, she doesn’t quite fit in. As she navigates her first trip to Korea, she consistently—and intentionally—pricks against cultural expectations. When told that it’s customary to let others refill one’s glass, Freddie smirks and reaches for the bottle to refill her own. She refuses to cow what others expect of her.
She wants to define her sense of self apart from the assumptions that others place on her, but there remains a lack of gnawing within. After Tena mentions the idea of reconnecting with her birth parents, Freddie winds up at the adoption agency looking for answers. This act reconnects her to her birth father and his family, but the time with them is an awkward one.
With this one choice, Freddie begins a search for history, story, clarity, and self that will drive her for years to come. Meeting her father doesn’t resolve her questions, and the continuing mystery of her mother becomes a gaping wound. Time will jump and we will meet Freddie again—in some ways, a very different Freddie; in some ways, the same. And then time jumps again. And jumps once more.
Return to Seoul It is about lives not lived and not by chance. It’s about the lives we live as we try to define what life means. During their first meeting, Freddie’s birth father shows her his town and speaks of all the ways it has changed. Chou’s film comments on the constant transformations of landscape, language, and economies. And as time shifts, we also chart the transformations of identity.
The young Freddie we initially meet is headstrong, unwilling to be hindered. A slightly older Freddie seems to have pursued her own sense of identity in, among other things, drugs and alcohol. But the idea of meeting her birth mother is sharp enough to cut through that identity. When we jump again, Freddie seems to have settled into a stable relationship and career, though both have their questionable sides. But again, her identity is hypersensitive to the mystery of her birth family, making her ever ready to burn down the other parts of her life. When push comes to shove, other questions of meaning mean little to Freddie.
During that early scene at the adoption agency, a mural on the wall can be seen that references Isaiah 43:5-7. The text reads:
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not hold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
Freddie makes no indication of faith, but the uncertainty she feels so intrinsically finds a spiritual reflection in this passage. Caught between cultures, she’s strangely untethered. Korea’s not her home, but neither is France. The question of who she is is entwined with the question of whose she is, both in relation to country and family. In our modern era, these are tensions that we all face, perhaps to lesser extents. Our identity is profoundly shaped by our culture, our parents, and our early experiences; Yet, we’re also active agents in the search for identity.
Park exhibits the intensity of this search. Her debut performance is like the first crack of lightning on a still evening: it’s unanticipated and riveting, yet slips from view the moment you stop to stare. Freddie is abrasive and sincere, and Park makes both aspects profound. At times, you can see the last bit of restraint cracking as Freddie holds back the emotional torment within. Chou’s direction and Park’s performance are crystallized in a dance scene that lies somewhere between Band a part and Beau Travel.
But Return to Seoul is more than an arresting performance. Chou’s film has a lot of thistly tensions to navigate: what it means to slip between cultures and subcultures (“It’s the way of Korean men.” “But I’m French.”); what it means to recreate one’s identity; whether that true self can be reshaped or is something more essential; what we owe to people we don’t know and a home we’ve never encountered. Chou evades precious simplifications, but he approaches each one through the close, personal lens of Freddie’s experience.
Return to Seoul moves with a propulsive force that goes beyond the unexpected choices of its main character. It is a beautiful film full of color and movement, and Chou strongly frames the faces through it all, not letting us distance ourselves from the immediate humanity of these struggling people.
God’s words through Isaiah offer a balm to those worn by the struggle for identity. Cast among the nations, we find hope that the Lord will redeem us and gather us to Himself. For those wounded by broken family dynamics, there is comfort in being claimed as a son or daughter called by his name. Lost in the search for identity, we find fulfillment in knowing that he has formed and made us—even with all our transformations, we are his.
Without spoiling anything, the conclusion is an ingenious end to such a shifting story. The lighting is so bright, so thick, so tangible. It’s transcendent. Return to Seoul refuses to answer who Freddie will be in the future, but it finds solace in that she is, truly, herself. Like before, but with an earned calm, she’s sight reading.
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