French-Cambodian director Davy Chou’s third feature ‘Return to Seoul” was inspired by a friend who was born in South Korea, adopted in France at age 1, then returned to her homeland twenty-two years later in search of an identity and her biological parents. Visual artist Park Ji-Min leaves the audience spellbound with a performance that transcends her acting debut as Frédérique, a character based on Chou’s friend. A performance of this caliber by a first-time actor is a rarity that happens ever so often.
25-year-old Frédérique Benoît (Park Ji-Min), Freddie to her friends, arrives in South Korea where she immediately befriends hotel clerk Tena (Guka Han) who is listening to music through headphones. The song is “Petals” by Lee Jung Hwa. “What are you listening?” asks Freddie in broken English. “It’s Korean music” responds Tena. She hands the headphones to Freddie who smiles while she listens, it’s one of the few times we’ll see her look delighted, and while she doesn’t speak the language the gesture indicates that our protagonist is here to absorb the culture she left behind for a life in France after being adopted at the age of one.
English is spoken minimally as most of the film toggles between French and Korean which makes Tena the story’s MVP; her mother taught French, so she serves as Freddie’s translator for the duration of her visit. The two become close friends after Freddie decides to visit the international Hammond Adoption Agency which leads to a reunion with her biological father played by veteran Korean actor Oh Kwang-Rok. Tena translates the conversations between the father and daughter, often sugarcoating Freddie’s cold remarks, as she grapples with the fact that her parents abandoned her despite leading a comfortable life in France under loving adoptive parents. Kwang-Rok delivers an affecting performance as a man who’s lived with regret since the moment he left Freddie (birth name Yeon-Hee) with the adoption agency in the hope of giving her a better life.
The scenes between Freddie and her father and his family are at times uncomfortable to watch as the awkward reunion is galvanized by opposing forces of emotion. It’s understandable that Freddie is detached from these people whom she doesn’t know. Her deadpan manner is contrasted by a sobbing father and grandmother (Hur Ouk-Sook) whose tears are brought on by a mixture of remorse and gratefulness. Missing from this reunion is Freddie’s biological mother who divorced her father many years ago. When the adoption agency sent out requests to both parents informing them that their daughter wanted to reconnect, only Freddie’s father responded. So, when the grandmother asks, “Has she met her mother?” the response from Freddie is “That’s not their business” which Tena translates as “Yeon-Hee’s mother hasn’t yet responded.”
Often during the film, you’re left wondering if Freddie even wants to reconnect with her biological family. Her father pours his heart out admitting that he has thought about her daily and now he wants Freddie to move in with his family and vows to help her find a Korean husband. The misplaced gesture is eventually greeted by hostility by Freddie who cuts off all lines of communication. So much of Ji-Min’s impressive debut is her ability to convey her emotions without the use of words. It’s a masterful demonstration of restraint.
Spanning the course of eight years, writer-director Davy Chou breaks the story into three parts as Freddie undergoes a metamorphosis from an overwhelmed, bitter, and naïve 25-year-old to a confident, emotionally liberated woman, in control of her life. Ji-Min undergoes a physical transformation with each chapter that by the film’s end it’s hard to believe we are watching the same actor.
Music plays a vital role in “Seoul” as the soundtrack coincides with Freddie’s transformation. In one scene she dances alone to the driving beat and swirling synths of Jeremie Arcache & Christopher Musset’s “Anybody” with English vocals that feature the lyrics “I never needed anybody.” Ji-Min danced to “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order while shooting the scene which would have made a great addition to the soundtrack, but “Anybody” is the perfect song to convey Freddie’s liberation which comes after much heartache.
The film’s second chapter takes place two years later. It opens with Arcache & Musset’s “Freddie” sounding like an updated version of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus, which was featured in the 1983 vampire film “The Hunger” starring David Bowie. Freddie’s burgundy lipstick, pale look, high collard black leather jacket, and short haircut gives her a punk look as she enters a dark chapter in her life that begins with a Tinder date where she meets an older French businessman named André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) who happens to be an arms dealer. Sex becomes secondary as their conversation begins to resemble an interview.
Boyfriends come and go as do family reunions but then Chou drops a scene in the middle of the hardened storyline that is filled with so much emotion that you may want to bring a pack of tissues with you. It’s two minutes of unbridled sentiment that defines the range of Ji-Min’s impressive acting debut.
“Return to Seoul” is a fictional story inspired by writer-director Davy Chou’s friend whose life began on the same trajectory as the film’s Frédérique Benoît. It’s not her story but she helped Chou create an authentic representation of what the process of adoptees reconnecting with their biological parents is really like for many people. It’s not all hugs and joy as portrayed in many films. Also, on some level, I imagine Chou was able to relate to Freddie’s character as he was born in France to parents who were born in Cambodia. At the age of 25, he visited his parent’s homeland for the first time while tracing his roots.
Now showing at the Angelika (Dallas) and Angelika (Plano). Opens March 31 at the Modern Art Museum of Ft. Worth