A Low-Budget Character Drama With Maximalist Thrills

Return to Seoul is a story of adoption and belonging that resists easy sentimentality.

Park Ji-min looking over her shoulder while walking down a street in Seoul in "Return to Seoul"
Sony Pictures Classics

Freddie Benoît, the 25-year-old protagonist of Return to Seoul, presents herself as a nomad who’s wandered into a foreign country on a whim. The viewer meets her mid-drink at a bar in Seoul and quickly figures out that the friends she’s sitting with are essentially strangers, a random assortment of new pals she’s enticed while holding court and pouring soju. Freddie, short for Frédérique, is a French woman who was adopted from South Korea at birth. She’s come back to find her biological parents, a search that turns into a jagged and frustrating journey of self-discovery. She’s made the trip without informing her adopted family and with little preparation—an approach that suits the rebellious vibe she seems to be trying out for the first time in Seoul.

Played by the actor Park Ji-min in her debut role, Freddie is a whirlwind of charm and chaos, somehow coasting by even though she doesn’t speak Korean and is a novice to all of the customs. As she’s repeatedly reminded, politeness dictates that you pour drinks only for others, not for yourself, in Korean social situations; to keep her own cup full, she keeps inviting strangers to her table. But she’s also motivated to make friends because she’s trying to find new answers to questions she often can’t articulate—about her identity, her place in the world, and her path forward. The writer-director Davy Chou’s film, which had a brief Oscar-qualifying run in theaters last fall but is finally being properly released this weekend, is one of the most surprising dramas of the year thus far.

Chou was inspired by a real-life friend who, in her 20s, similarly returned to Korea to reconnect with her birth father; Chou witnessed the reunion. But the filmmaker has another, even more personal link to the story: He was born in France to parents who had left Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over, and he first visited their homeland at the age of 25, connecting with a culture that was both far-off and familiar. Chou’s first two features, the 2011 documentary Golden Slumbers and the 2016 drama Diamond Island, were made in Cambodia. He didn’t know very much about the Korean setting he chose for Return to Seoul. But that distanced perspective only bolsters the film’s underlying sense of curiosity and mystery.

Freddie, by and large, is oblivious in Seoul: She asks her bar mates inappropriate questions, flirts up a storm, and eventually blusters her way into the adoption agency that sent her to France when she was a baby. She moves recklessly yet effectively, thanks to the sheer force of her personality. Freddie is hard to pin down; she often literally flees from the frame. In multiple sequences, she dances with abandon, the camera working frantically to keep her in its sight.

Park’s performance is extraordinary, shifting from coquettish to threatening to needy without ever losing grasp of the character’s core anxieties about lineage and belonging. The film resists easy sentimentality when introducing Freddie’s birth family, who greet her with a mix of interest and shame. They aren’t the final piece of the puzzle; they don’t have simple answers for Freddie as to why she was given up for adoption or, more important, why she feels such deep existential listlessness. Throughout the movie, Freddie seems desperate to understand the contradictions of her identity—she’s not quite satisfied with her life in France or her relationship with her adoptive parents (whom we briefly glimpse in a sweet yet melancholy phone call), but she feels equally uncomfortable and out of place in Korea. The impulsiveness she exhibits there is viewed with trepidation by her new friends and her birth family alike.

As the film goes on, it jumps through time and portrays several radical transformations of Freddie’s personality. With its ever-evolving protagonist, Return to Seoul defies neat categorization. It’s a low-budget character drama with the twists and turns of a high-octane thriller. It’s also a consistently satisfying watch that honors the difficulty of wanting to be understood—and the relief of finally releasing that desire.