Frédérique (Ji-Min Park) arrives in Seoul, supposedly after her flight to Tokyo has been cancelled. While there, she meets and bonds quickly with Tena (Guka Han), a hotel worker who eventually acts as a translator for her real purpose of visiting Seoul - finding her biological parents. Having lived in France for the past 25 years with her adoptive parents, Freddie has no concept of the complex laws in South Korea surrounding adoption, the cultural norms of the place, or how South Koreans themselves view foreign adoption...
'Return To Seoul' is, when you look at the full size of it, a deeply difficult task for any director to tackle, certainly one who's on his second movie. Yet, the way in which director Davy Chou not only grasps the thorny issues is either indicative of his bravery or his naivety. There are so many moments in 'Return To Seoul' where a lesser talent would have gone for some quick catharsis or realisation in order to affect an emotional release, yet Ji-Min Park's performance and Davy Chou's embrace of ambiguity means that it's denied for something much more real and authentic. It is impossible to comprehend just how many emotions must be floating through someone going through all this, not to mention the fact that it's happening at a critical juncture in their lives, when the self is only really beginning to form and how something like this impacts on it.
Ji-Min Park's performance is nothing short of mesmerising. The story picks up at different points in her life, taking some surprising twists and turns along the way. After she stays in South Korea for a number of years, she looks almost like she's walked off the set of a 'Blade Runner' rip-off. Time jumps forward again, and she looks like she's covered in stealth wealth clothes and much more austere in her appearance. Each time we encounter her character, she's a brand-new person because she is so unmoored from everything by the fact of her status as an adoptee. We see how it's frighteningly easy for her to leave behind herself and the people in her life, remarking coldly to one particular squeeze that she could cut him out of her life in a flash for no reason.
Chou shoots Seoul in different tones and colours, sometimes covering it with neon and tech-noir vibes, and other times in dark greys and rain-soaked alleys. Although Ji-Min Park is pretty much in every scene in this, it's how Chou shoots her in them that tells so much about her mental state. When she's in her darkness, she shrinks into the back of a taxi. Other times, we see her from a distance, wading through uncomfortableness with one of her adoptive parents. On that point, Oh Kwang-rok gives a scene-stealing performance as the father, playing him with an incredibly potent blend of tragedy and pathos.
Adoption stories are, by their nature, hard to comprehend. Most of us take our parentage for granted, never truly grasping how deeply tangled the web of emotions must be surrounding it. 'Return To Seoul' dives head-first into it. It captures all of them with stunning precision; rage, disgust, sadness, rebuilding the self from the scraps left behind, severing the past, all of it captured and magnified here in clear, crisp detail.