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Return to Seoul Review

by Daniel Reynolds
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

After watching Return to Seoul, it may surprise you to learn that it is lead actress Park Ji-Min’s feature acting debut. I’m sure there’s some explanation as to how writer-director Davy Chou cast her as the star of his striking new film, but I prefer not to know it. That mystery, and that surprise, serve the film better than a clearer picture of all the facts ever could.

Park plays Frédérique, or Freddie, a young woman adopted into a French family as a baby from South Korea. At Return to Seoul‘s outset, she’s just another 25-year-old backpacking in a foreign land. But Freddie is also visiting her native soil for the first time—by accident, she claims—and there’s an obvious emotional pull at work: Freddie would like to meet her birth parents. Chou’s narrative uses this simple hook to draw us into the arc of Freddie’s life as she learns about herself and transforms from an aimless young woman into a more defined adult—albeit one whose future is no more settled. In overall effect, the film’s elliptical structure, which leaps us through Freddie’s formative years as she makes and remakes her self-image, works because of Park’s stellar performance. Much of Chou’s directorial choices are shaped around that knowledge: Park’s embodiment of Freddie makes both character and actress a fascinating discovery. While others spin into her orbit, including her Korean family (led by a moving performance by Oh Kwang-rok as her father), again and again, Chou returns to close-ups of Park to capture whatever feelings needed to move his film onto the next scene. It’s magical stuff.

The old narrative adage of “surprising but inevitable” applies to Return to Seoul. Step back from its plot and it’s not an overly complicated film. That hardly matters though and it thematically works well anyway because of the spell Chou is able to cast with his camera, the emotional intelligence he angles into his writing, and, yes, one more time: because Park is a star.

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