Return to Seoul Review: Rendered Vulnerable by Our Roots

Davy Chou directs one of the best movies of this year.

When we are pulled down below by our roots, the fear that emerges is not a common one. It comes from inside in the form of an inescapable question that asks who we are. ‘Return to Seoul,’ directed by Davy Chou and starring Ji-Min Park, examines that anguish in one of the most gripping and best-acted films of the year.

‘Return to Seoul’ begins its story during the 25th birthday of the protagonist, Freddie. A South Korean-born adoptee, she comes back to the country for the first time since her adoption after living her life in France with her adoptive family. Finding herself in a culture she doesn’t understand with a language she doesn’t know, the same impulsive nature that pushed her to change her travel plans soon points her to the decision most people would likely take in her place: she begins to look for her biological parents.

It’s films like this that made me fall hopelessly in love with the medium. I try to find passion in myself for every art form, yet I cannot imagine loving any of them more than I love film. It’s the close-up of two characters’ hands touching as a sign of support in Eliza Hittman’s work; it’s the reminiscing over fleeting images of the life of Jonas Mekas in his experimental diaries; it’s people attempting to portray real life and emotions with all its nuances by creating with a piece of themselves in a tangible, imperfect, and purposeful way. It’s the portrayal of intimacy that I connect with the most, and Freddie is a perfect example of that.

Portrayed by the visual artist and first-time actress Park Ji-Min, Chou’s script never feels in need to give any redundant answers for the protagonist’s actions. In just the second scene, she has dinner at a restaurant, already in her homeland, with the first two people she met before deciding to bring every other customer together at one table to celebrate. This aspect of her personality is later cemented during a dance sequence that works as a spot-on representation of the character: She is a free-spirited person, that much is made clear. But there is a deep, underlying sadness. This, at times, borderline erratic behaviour is born not only of nature but of necessity.

Sometimes we are able to see through that protective layer of impulse and emotional distance in increasingly challenging situations for the character, and the feelings she has been harboring inside build up and compete for height against the walls she has built around herself. It’s all in the little facial expressions that you cannot help but think only Park could’ve pulled off. 

Our roots can often feel like a curse. Be it for societal notions or otherwise, they hold power over us, defining us; it can be empowering, and also spell a loss of agency over our own identity. Being a stranger to them can feel as though you are a stranger to yourself, and the unknown remains the most blood-chilling fear of all. Deciding to uncover it is a herculean task, but no matter what you imagine or daydream about, it can never measure up to the reality you will face, good or bad. For Freddie, facing that part of her reality meant disappointment. Such heartbreaking, identity-shattering disappointment that she’s sent into a spiral that would set the stage for the rest of the movie.

‘Return to Seoul’ is a film about finding yourself without happy reunions, sometimes even without catharsis. It’s a film about going through years of hardships, flawed misconceptions, mistakes, crazy parties, quiet meetings, and vulnerability until you can sit down and connect with the real you.

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