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Nathan Weinbender reviews "Return to Seoul"

NATHAN WEINBENDER:

So many movie protagonists arrive on-screen fully formed. Not Freddie, the young woman at the heart of Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul, who is one of the least predictable characters I’ve seen in a long time. She feels real in a way that fictional characters rarely do: brittle, selfish, full of swirling and volatile emotions, prone to pettiness, carelessness and even cruelty.

Freddie is played by first-time actor Park Ji-min, and it’s one of the most impressive debut performances in recent memory. She is one of hundreds of thousands of children born in Korea who were adopted by families living abroad, having been raised in France by a white family. As the movie opens, Freddie is in her mid-20s. She’s in South Korea for the first time since she was born, but not, she insists, to reconnect with her biological parents. Her flight to Tokyo was delayed, and she changed plans at the last moment.

Freddie eventually makes her way to the agency that, two decades ago, arranged her adoption. There she’s given the addresses of her biological mother and father, and she begins to weigh the consequences of initiating contact before heading back home to France.

Return to Seoul then unfolds over the next few years, told in several chapters with gulfs of time separating them. In each new chapter, Freddie no longer resembles the version of her we saw in the previous one. She falls in and out of love. She switches jobs. Friends enter her life and then disappear, either because they’ve simply moved on or because she has deliberately alienated them. Her manner of dressing and styling herself completely changes. Is this the natural order of things, or is she evolving as a means of running away from something?

Freddie feels disconnected and sullen a lot of the time, the human embodiment of a clenched fist. Park’s performance is so remarkable because of how it’s so emotionally vulnerable and yet still full of secrets; there’s almost always a wall between herself and everyone else, including us in the audience. Early in the film, Freddie talks about going through life like a musician sight-reading a score, but her joie de vivre feels perfunctory, impetuous, sad. She is desperate for ballast in her life, and yet we sense that she is destined to always feel unmoored, out of place, incomplete.

This is only Davy Chou’s third feature, and what he reveals in Return to Seoul is a preternatural sense for how time passes and how people and places imprint on us. We have seen the broad details of this story before in dramatically dishonest melodramas, but they’re fresh this time because Chou embraces loose ends, unanswered questions and mysterious detours.

The movie closes not with catharsis but with a set of ellipses, and we’re left to wonder where Freddie will go next, who she’ll become. This is a film about the double-edged sword that is learning who you truly are, and although there is a nagging loneliness at its center, it’s thrilling to watch because it is so lifelike and so rich in its detail. Hopefully Return to Seoul signals more great movies to come from both Davy Chou and Park Ji-min.

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Nathan Weinbender is one of the regular co-hosts for Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.

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