(Written by Allison Brown)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Return to Seoul tells the story of a troubled young woman, Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Park Ji-min), deeply affected by her endeavor to reconnect with her birth parents. I was immediately interested once I learned of Sony’s involvement with the film, as the distributor is probably one of the most reliable in terms of quality. I liked the film, but I think I hoped I would enjoy it a bit more, given its status as an international Oscar submission. While Park Ji-min gives a deeply layered performance, her character comes off as shallow, chaotic, and unlikeable, making it hard to personally connect with her.

A short vacation to Japan turns into a spontaneous three day stay in South Korea, to two weeks, and finally, to nearly a lifetime for our lead Freddie. Best described as a free spirit and social butterfly, Freddie is also deeply noncommittal and egotistical. She doesn’t make much effort to understand Korean customs, and instead, relies on her learned French experience in interacting with others. Throughout the film, she immediately forms close bonds with those in her nearby surroundings, but is quick to annihilate relationships. Desk attendant Tena (Guka Han) in the hostel, Guest House, where Freddie is staying is quick to become her confidant, French to Korean translator, and guide to the country. She and her friend, Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom), mention that Freddie has a classic Korean face, and that she should check out Hammond, the very famous local adoption center. Freddie uncovers more than she bargained for when an old photo of her “birth mother” helps the agency to find her adoption file, her birth name (Yeon-Hee), and in turn, the names and locations of her birth parents.

After Hammond reaches out to both on her behalf, Freddie’s father (Oh Kwang-rok) swiftly responds. The initial meeting is overwhelming as her birth family, including her aunt (Kim Sun-young), half siblings, and paternal grandmother (Hur Ouk-Sook), are quick to unload their sorrow and guilt on Freddie. She does not take it well, and it all comes to a head once her father begins to drunkenly spam text her with apologies. The more Tena begins to see of Freddie’s true self and her interactions with her new family, the more disgusted she becomes until she finally leaves. Deeply self-destructive, Freddie falls into a downward spiral with every brief interaction she has with her birth father. She has difficulty expressing emotion and inner turmoil, and instead drinks herself into unfortunate situations, or pushes away those close to her with toxic behavior. It is not surprising that Freddie is left completely on her own by the end of the film.

Director Davy Chou makes a strange choice to almost exclude Freddie’s adopted parents completely from the film, despite their likely significant influence on her life. I understand that this is something Freddie decided she had to do on her own, but it almost feels disrespectful to those who step up to raise and love someone else’s child to barely mention them in such a long frame of time. The audience is only introduced to Freddie’s real mother through a brief video call, where she appears just as hurt to be left out of Freddie’s huge decision as the hole in the narrative left by her omittance.

I was a bit frustrated by the ending. I was hoping it would end with an earlier portion, where Freddie finally seems to have settled down with a good man, Maxime (Yoann Zimmer), and has found a way to properly navigate the relationship with her birth father. An unprovoked response to a mundane conversation where she tells Maxime, “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers,” left me staring at the screen in disgust; the statement only serves to confirm her appalling nature. Instead of a happy ending, we are left with one that is undefined. Watching Freddie try to find an equal balance between her French and Korean heritage feels like an endless struggle that fails to find its way to completion. Perhaps I just prefer all loose ends to be tied up, but I feel like it made the two hours of following Freddie’s internal struggle feel like a waste of time. I also found Return to Seoul ’s division into chapters by resetting the scene years ahead to be distracting. This decision takes the viewer out of the story and leaves one attempting to fill in the missing gaps in time. It is a lazy way to transition between large gaps of time without finding a common thread between the two.

After following Return to Seoul through festivals for months, it seems that it is now the Cambodian submission to the Oscars for Best International Feature. While I will admit Return to Seoul is an entertaining and well-constructed film with a brilliant lead performance, it feels an odd choice as representation for Cambodia. Despite the director’s French-Cambodian background, the narrative is more evocative of equal parts French and South Korean culture.

Return to Seoul just played a one-week award qualifying run on December 2, and will expand to NY and LA theatres on February 17th.

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