Return to Seoul

Return to Seoul is a very slow-paced movie, yet it has an allure that eventually drew me in. A key part of that is the lead performance from Park Ji-Min, a first-time actress who is so assured onscreen that it's hard to believe she hasn't been doing this forever. The film itself deals with adoption and the journey taken by a young woman coming to terms with her origins – or trying to, at least. Adoption stories are of particular interest to me, and this one takes an approach I haven't seen before.

Park plays Freddie, a 25-year-old free spirit who spontaneously travels to Korea to look into her background. Upon visiting the adoption agency that placed her with a French couple as a child, she encounters a system bound by bureaucratic rules. They can, by law, send up to three telegrams to her biological parents. Once those three are used up, there can be no more, lest they be charged with harassment. Freddie decides to send telegrams to each parent. Only her father (Oh Kwang-rok) responds. They meet up, but he's a depressed alcoholic, which turns her off.

After their encounter is complete, the film jumps ahead five years. Freddie has changed her appearance, taking on a more fashionable look. She starts up a fling with an arms dealer who suggests she'd be good at his job because it requires someone who “never looks back.” Two more years go by, then one more. Freddie is slightly different every time we see her. I don't want to say what prompts these reinventions of herself, except to note that they seem to be triggered by the on-again/off-again contact with her father and curiosity about the mother who apparently doesn't care. The story implies that, without a firm grasp on where she came from, her life is a series of experimentations as she attempts to form a permanent identity.

Writer/director Davy Chou gives Return to Seoul a quiet, observational feel. This isn't a movie where a lot of overt drama occurs. In fact, the most forthright it gets is a stunning sequence in a bar where we watch Freddie dance for the duration of a song. Instead, we are invited to take in the details about how the agency facilitates the reunion of adult children and their birth parents, as well as how navigating that process impacts Freddie. What does she expect? Even she lacks an answer to that question. Her ambivalence is fascinating. Without preconceived ideas about what she'll find, the character simply absorbs it all, then morphs into a new iteration of herself.

Gorgeous cinematography helps bring Seoul to life onscreen, making it a moody, atmospheric background against which Freddie's drama plays out. Park Ji-Min gives a brilliant minimalist performance as the character. You have to study her face and her body language to get what she's feeling. The actress's work is so compelling that it helps compensate for a plot that drags at times. Even with that caveat, Return to Seoul is noteworthy for a fresh angle on adoption. If Freddie is looking for easy, convenient answers from her biological parents, she doesn't find them. And that, for better or worse, means she can be whomever she wants, provided she can figure out who that person is.

out of four

Return to Seoul is rated R for brief drug use, nudity, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes.