Powerful exploration of identity and the concept of home
- Return to Seoul review by PD
Since the 1950s, many children have been adopted internationally from South Korea. A programme initially started to find parents for orphans of the Korean War, it became a huge operation, with thousands of orphans or children of unwanted pregnancies sent overseas for a better life. Partly based on the testimony of a real-life friend of director Davey Chou, the film dramatises the story of one such adoptee: Freddie, now 25, superbly played by Ji-Min Park.
Park Ji-min is very impressive as the film’s charismatic, mercurial protagonist, embodying Freddie's multiple contradictions with some skill, and while Chou’s screenplay gently challenges many preconceived assumptions about the effects of adoption on adoptees, it also perceptively realises that whether biology affects identity or not, the mere possibility that such a link exists can exert a powerful attraction on a searching spirit not quite sure what it is searching for. Set across eight dramatically transformative years in Freddie’s life, the film is divided in three, and rounded off with a short, gently ironic coda. The first section, detailing a first visit to Seoul, is the longest and most straightforward. Glimmers of the self-possessed Freddie’s erratic extroversion do appear, as when she suddenly exhorts a whole restaurant full of strangers to gather and carouse around a single table, or when she casually picks up and sleeps with an acquaintance only to coldly rebuff his more sincere subsequent attentions, but mostly, the film’s opening hour loosely follows the expected arc of the adoption drama, as French-speaking Freddie, with useful new friend Tena in tow as translator, hesitantly goes about tracking down her birth parents. Her mother remains elusive, whilst Freddie’s biological father is quite the contrary - his overeager attempts to reconnect after two-and-a-half decades of absence is perhaps the one reaction most certain to make his prodigal daughter recoil. Freddie is more affected by her origin story than she’ll admit, but she’s also prickly about it, as though resenting the idea that the complex, oddly magnetic person she has become could be reduced to a simple set of adoption-related psychological cause-and-effect.
The film seems to settle into a placid, melancholy rhythm, as Freddie’s brief stay nears its end: there’s a nice line in culture clash as Tena not only translates Freddie’s blunt demurrals, but softens and sweetens them so as not to hurt her father’s feelings. Then, abruptly, the setting changes. We’re still in Seoul but it’s two years later, and Freddie is slinking vampishly through the nighttime city having jettisoned her old friends and become part of the city’s glamorously seedy underground. Then the last act leaps forward again, this time by five years, with Freddie putting her edge of amorality to work as an arms dealer, employed by one of her former hookups and apparently happily coupled up with supportive French boyfriend Maxime. This time, her return to Seoul on business is reluctant, and by this stage, the film itself has transformed, from adoption drama to character portrait and ultimately into an intriguing and intricate investigation of place and belonging. One that will obviously mean much to adoptees and emigrants, but also for those of us blessed and cursed with that rootless, wanderlusting gene, where home isn't the place of your birth, or the house you were raised in, or the place where you keep all your stuff, but where you are always subconsciously coming back to in your heart. Powerful stuff.
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