Return to Seoul is a 2022 drama written and directed by Davy Chou about a young woman attempting to rediscover her heritage by going to an impromptu trip to South Korea. Adopted by French parents after being abandoned by her birth parents, she attempts to connect with the local culture and her biological parents while dealing with the feeling of never quite belonging anywhere.
The central concept, revolving around the industry of international adoption where babies from foreign countries are shipped to white parents, is very loaded and ripe for exploration, especially at the end of the children. Many of these children grow in white-majority countries with histories of imperialism, possibly against the countries they were adopted from.
It’s a thorny issue, but the film navigates it with deftness by centering it on the emotions of the adoptee, Freddie (Park Ji-Min). Freddie repeatedly describes herself as “French” to the people around her despite them assuming her Koreanness because of her looks. She appears to have open disdain at some Korean cultural traditions, whether it’s something as innocuous as guest-related drinking traditions or something passively malicious like the patriarchal attitude in Korea where the men around her want her to get married. She sneers at these traditions while wearing her French upbringing proudly in every conversation.
And yet, Freddie’s time in Seoul is fraught with instability, as she reckons with a biological father (played by Oh Kwang-rok) who feels guilt at not being able to raise her, and a biological mother (played by Cho-woo Choi) who wants nothing to do with her. She’s had great opportunities for educational and social mobility that she likely would not have gotten from her original parents, and yet, as Freddie finds herself in South Korea seeking to understand her origin, there’s a certain amount of loss in her eyes at knowing that she can’t belong in this place, and that she likely never would.
Chou’s screenplay doesn’t really criticize the international adoption industry explicitly, but he also doesn’t shy away from the emotions one could feel in being forced to go through a system where they effectively remove all the links to your lineage from birth. Chou finds a lot of human moments to focus on as he plays around the odd culture shock that a woman who looks Korean but is culturally Western would experience in the country.
It’s sometimes very funny (Freddie spending three days with her father was rife with a lot of small hilarious moments of awkwardness between them), but the culture shock morphs into restlessness as Freddie comes to understand that, no matter what she does, she doesn’t belong in Korea—and that restlessness turns into loss as she finds herself unsuccessful in plugging in the emptiness in her soul.
Chou shows the effects of this rootlessness that pervades Freddie’s existence, which includes her taking a job in the international arms trade (a weird tangent in the film) as well as constantly partying and drinking as a way of dulling the sense of emptiness that she has when she’s in Korea. The lifestyle that she’s chosen feels empty and dry, and that seems like an intentional choice towards reflecting how, despite being both French and Korean, Freddie doesn’t actually have strong roots in either side. Her life is lived separate from the cultures she allegedly belongs to, and thus she finds herself immersed in shallow waters, unable to connect with any of the people she cares about no matter how hard she tries.
By the end of the film, there isn’t a sense of closure in the loneliness or separation or unwantedness that she feels deep inside; it just is, and Freddie is forced to live with it forever as no closure seems to ever be enough to keep those feelings at bay. It seems like a very hopeless ending in a film that finds their protagonist attempting to bridge the divide between their nurtured culture and their heritage, but it might also be Chou communicating that there isn’t any satisfactory way to bridge the divide now, and that all the people who find themselves existing in the divide can do is pick up the pieces and live with the consequences.
All of this is rooted in an excellent lead performance by Park Ji-Min, who finds ways of conveying that emptiness and restlessness inside herself through the silence of her stare. Whether it’s the big emotional moments or the small comedic ones, she knows how to get across the loneliness that she feels and the desperation that exists behind every action.
Return to Seoul is a great look into the tangled emotions that come from feeling separate from the culture and heritage that could’ve and should’ve been your own. It dives into the loneliness of feeling disconnected from an important part of yourself, finding no easy answers to how the change can be addressed in the process. There are questions to be asked about the ethics of the practices that we have, but Seoul reminds us of the restless people at the center of the story, looking for answers in the deep yearnings of their heart and never truly finding anything satisfying in the end.