Director: Davy Chou
Stars: Ji-Min Park, Guka Han, Emeline Briffaud
Music as a method of expression when all else fails is a key part of Davy Chou’s lyrical international hit Return to Seoul, which touches down in UK cinemas this weekend via MUBI’s distribution arm. A character study inspired by a friend of the filmmaker’s, it tells the story of Frédérique Benoît aka Freddie (Ji-Min Park; a revelatory discovery), a South Korean adoptee who has grown up in France, now returning to Seoul for the first time on impulse with half a mind to track down her birth parents. The film charts a stuttering discord between the estranged family members, unpicking complex emotional battlegrounds often hampered by belligerence and resentment.
Freddie is a defiantly self-possessed and independent person, something that may have grown out of her sense of alienation and detachment. With Return to Seoul Chou examines the psychological barriers built by children rejected by their parents. The ways in which such people (and this writer counts himself among them, in a sense) protectively wall themselves up from further hurt, making new bonds a difficult terrain to navigate.
As intimated, what can’t often be articulated here manifests in other ways, often in connection with music. Much of what you need to know about Freddie is expressed in a phenomenal dance scene which occurs on the last night of Freddie’s first visit back to her home country, following a tumultuous reunion with her father (Oh Kwang-rok).
Agitated and keen for distraction – particularly from a lovelorn romeo planning their future together – Freddie gets chatting to the DJ at the dive bar she’s at, before busting out aggressive moves down the midway to a New Order-ish number dreamed up by the film’s scorers Jérémie Arache and Christophe Musset. Freddie’s dancing at times mimics the movements of shadow-boxing. In this extended shot, we get a sense of her overwhelming frustration and sadness; her diaspora. She bristles, lashes out, stands alone yet seeking. Drunk, she makes an abortive move on her friend and guide Tena (Guka Han) and is immediate called out; her dance having articulated more about her state of being than she would ever say. French cinema is pocked with famous moments where a character’s dance reveals them (perhaps the most famous is Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie). With Freddie and Return to Seoul, Chou boldly stakes a claim in this significant legacy of cinematic motion and revelry.
While her sorrowful, alcoholic father is more than forthcoming about rebuilding their relationship, Freddie resents his abundant overtures now that they’re so close at hand. It’s telling of the concealing comfort of distance – both figurative and literal – and how we can’t always prepare ourselves for our own reactions. In contrast, Freddie’s more concerted efforts to reconnect with her mother lead to simple rejection. The inability to know why hits heavy.
Return to Seoul ultimately covers 8 years. We meet Freddie in 2013 at 25 years old. Young, impetuous, filled with a disarming vigor for improvised socialising. She has that ineffable sense of immortality that lasts a couple of years after university. In uneven fits and starts the film jumps forward in time, reuniting with her only on return journeys to Korea. A dating app hook-up with an older man leads her into a job opportunity. Five years later she’s selling missiles for a French weapons contractor; her efforts to explain and excuse her role hampered by language barriers and her own faltering credibility. Freddie talks early in the film about “sight reading” – picking up something on first flush as though seasoned to it – but it’s a skill she’s mastered only in certain situations. In the presence of her father she stammers.
It is in this same scene that music overcomes another barrier. The father plays a recording of his own efforts at music, and it proves unexpectedly moving for the man; so much so that he is revealed to Freddie – and to us – in ways previously unanticipated. Later, after the film’s subdued final emotional punch, an older Freddie puts her “sight reading” to better use, playing piano, building up her confidence after a downplayed emotional loss, indicating to the audience that – though she has faltered – there’s still a path to follow.
In attempting to bottle the moods and feelings associated with a specific and volatile personality type and in trying to capture a particular type of diaspora, Chou has crafted a film that woos in moments. Like Freddie’s own journey, Return to Seoul is pocked with standout flourishes here and there; grace notes that make up for the film’s inscrutable or meandering sequences. Ostensibly three acts and a coda, there’s a misshapenness to the movie that imitates the faltering unpredictability of life, but there’s consistent beauty in Thomas Favel’s cinematography, and in Ji-Min Park’s firebrand lead performance. As the film’s finale acknowledges, we’re all a work in progress. This is Chou’s third feature, but the first to garner such attention. He’s on his own unfinished path and a great many more people are going to be interested in what happens next.