TIFF: You can’t take your eyes off newcomer Park Ji-Min in Davy Chou’s spine-chilling drama about a Korean-born, French-raised woman searching for her true identity.
Few films have been more perfectly in tune with their protagonists than Davy Chou’s jagged, restless and unpredictable “Return to Seoul,” a shark-like adoption drama that its 25-year-old heroine wears like an extra layer of skin. or pointed cartilage. The film spans eight years in two hours, but you can feel its spiky texture and assumed violence from the first disorienting scenes.
Played by visual artist and debut actress Park Ji-Min (who gives a towering performance worthy of the same attention that Cate Blanchett and Michelle Yeoh will receive for their work this fall), Freddie, raised in France, arrives in Seoul without context, which leaves us with the insane task of trying to “resolve” his identity by drinking too many glasses of soju with his new friends. Some clues are easier to decipher than others. While Freddie may have been born in the country – and wears what some of his drinking buddies agree is “a typical Korean face” from “ancient and ancestral” times – it’s clear this is his first trip since she was adopted as a child, and that she does not consider it her home and that she does not speak a word of the mother tongue.
Less obvious is the agenda behind Freddie’s sudden return. Her blatant disregard for local customs suggests she’s not here to reconnect with her roots, and when someone offers to contact the local adoption agency, Freddie doesn’t just change the subject, she transforms completely the energy of the film. himself. A flash of light through his eyes signals Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset’s wild, woozy score to slip into the mix (imagine the sound of a drunken lumberjack preparing to chop down a redwood on a dare), and the next thing that we know as Freddie trots around the bar and gathering everyone around the same table. It won’t be the last time she retreats into a thick beat for her safety, or Chou’s layered and elusive storyline – which aggressively defies convention at every turn – uses music to reach Freddie when language fails. .
The next morning, after Freddie wakes up in an awkward stranger’s bed and insists they have sex again because she’s too drunk to remember if they did the night before , she heads for the adoption center with all the enthusiasm of someone who has been summoned there. by court order (Park exudes a “what do you want?” energy that proves wonderfully confusing to the nice lady behind the desk who is used to more impatient visitors). When Freddie insists she “knows nothing” about Korea, we realize that extends to her reasons for being there. Part of her may be looking for reconciliation, but another part of her is so resentful of being given an identity after a lifetime of inventing her own that she becomes immediately the opposite of everything people expect. One of the film’s many major time jumps comes back to find that Freddie has become an arms dealer, how shocking enough the change is to seem completely on brand.
It’s a sort of reverse camouflage that Freddie wears like warrior paint – Chou was inspired by Furiosa, though one costume seems to knowingly summon Lady Vengeance – her kill or be killed attitude giving the character control from every scene in the film until whoever finds it abandons it completely. Sometimes that control exudes a certain strength, as is the case when Freddie flips the usual gender dynamic on one of the men lucky enough to get crushed under his shoes. Other times it makes her sad and small, like when she humiliates her alcoholic and guilty biological father after spending a few days with her new family. His simpering love is repugnant to him.
It’s a wonder Freddie doesn’t burst out laughing when she learns her birth name means “docile,” but then again, she’s not always in on the joke. The magic of Chou’s film – and the irrepressible performance responsible for carrying it through every shot – lies in the way it reflects the chaotic energy of someone who loses himself in the translation itself.
On the one hand, Freddie’s racial, family and historical roots could allow her to recognize herself better in Korea than she ever could in France. On the other hand, the fact that everyone is treating Freddie’s journey like a homecoming only makes her feel more like an outsider. Rather than exploring this disconnect in the didactic language it entails, Chou encourages Park to alchemize his character’s self-split feelings with all the recklessness of a nuclear physicist splitting the atom. The most compelling moments (in a film that doesn’t really have any other genre) seem to catch Freddie in the fallout of his own reactions; even the brief glimpse of Freddie on the bus to deal with her birthfall is irradiated with a combustible sense of truth and danger as she giggles in her seat while yelling at the driver to turn around.
In that light, it’s no small thing to say that “Return to Seoul” is as raw and jagged as Freddie herself, or that Chou manages to maintain an uncanny sense of control over her story even as she morphs. into a miniature epic along the way. of its lengthy second half (it’s the second feature from the “Diamond Island” director, coming six years after his equally dreamlike and ambitious debut). As unexpected as some of the various plot pivots and gaps may seem at the time – Freddie is even going through an alt-goth phase – their carefree forward movement reflects the zero-sum mindset of a woman trying to invent a new version of herself. terms at the same time that she yearns for an older version of herself that never was; it should be noted that “Return to Seoul” was called “All the People I’ll Never Be” before Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film from Cannes and saw fit to change its title for a US release.
Like Freddie, Chou’s drama is both vulnerable and fearless. Friendly and hostile. Serious and absurd. It’s the rare film that can drop a long dance sequence in the middle of pressing conversation without sounding the least bit mannered or aloof; the rare film that only feels more honest because of its more flamboyant choices, and only makes its heroine more empathetic because of how she pushes others away (“I could erase you from my life by a snap of his fingers” Freddie goes after a flattering boyfriend in a moment that made me sick with worry for his adoptive parents in France). This “Return to Seoul” ends on such a ravaged and ambivalent note that those crescendoing towards him might frustrate anyone still waiting for a cleaner sense of catharsis, but Chou’s plaintive coda feels like a finale of resounding truth to the story of a woman who is in reverse, and won’t know where she wants to go until she can fully see who she has always been.
“Return to Seoul” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and made its North American debut at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will hit theaters later this year.