Skip to main content

'Return to Seoul' is a funny, melancholy film that will surprise you start to finish

John Powers says the movie starts off like a sentimental fish-out-of-water story about a young woman's search for her roots. But it quickly becomes clear that we're seeing something stranger and stronger.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on March 8, 2023

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 8, 2023: Interview with Sally Adee; Tribute to Wayne Shorter; Review of 'Return to Seoul.'



This is FRESH AIR. In the new movie "Return To Seoul," a young Korean woman, raised by adoptive parents in France, goes back to the country of her birth. The film was written and directed by Davy Chou and is now playing around the country. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that the story and lead actress took him to interesting places he never expected to go.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: In his great novel "If On A Winter's Night A Traveler," Italo Calvino makes a whimsical list of the many different kinds of books. One of them is called Books That You've Read Before They've Even Been Written - meaning they're so predictable that you know every beat in advance. This same genre thrives at the movies, where I often feel that I'm once again viewing a story I've been watching my whole life. That's why I was so excited by "Return To Seoul," a funny, melancholy, music-laced film that surprised me from start to finish. Written and directed by a Cambodian French director, Davy Chou, the movie starts off like a sentimental fish-out-of-water story about a young woman's search for her roots. But it quickly becomes clear that we're seeing something stranger and stronger. First time actress Park Ji-min stars as Frederique "Freddie" Benoit, who was sent off from Korea to France as a baby and raised by a white French couple.

Now 25, Freddy feels herself French. She doesn't speak any Korean. And a photo of her birth mom is all she has of Korea. But her life takes a strange turn when a typhoon changes her travel plans mid-trip and she winds up in Seoul. She's not exactly sure what she's going to do there besides wander around in her headphones, drink too much and hook up with cute strangers. She's not in search of her Korean origins, but many of the people she meets in Korea want her to be. It's as if they want her to behave like the heroine of a soppy immigrant drama about getting in touch with her family past. And because Freddie is aimless, she does wind up at the adoption agency that sent her and countless other Korean babies to the West. And this agency does put her in contact with her boozy birth father, a touching, absurd figure wonderfully played by Oh Kwang-rok, who wants her to move in with his family. Their first encounter, complete with weeping grandma and an aunt who erratically translates their conversation, is a triumph of droll awkwardness.

Although her dad dreams of reconciliation, Freddie is cussedly, almost seethingly, willful. She's a born refuser who bridles at people telling her what she ought to do. Early on, she's out drinking with two nice young Koreans who speak French. When she starts to pour herself a glass of soju, they stop her and say that in Korea, pouring your own drink is considered an insult to your companions. She registers the point, then promptly fills her glass with soju and swallows it down. The rest of the movie unfolds in similar fashion, with Freddie never quite doing what we or those around her expect.

With its shifting palette and attentive eye, Chou's style respects her unruliness. Rather than weave itself into a tidy narrative complete with tailor-made epiphanies, "Return To Seoul" lurches through eight years in a series of sharp, unpredictable episodes. Along the way, Freddie gets involved with a louche older Frenchman, takes a job selling weapons and half-heartedly seeks her birth mother. Freddie is clearly searching for an identity. Yet neither she nor the movie defines identity in terms of race, nationality or family - notions that Chou, himself a cultural outsider, thinks too broad to capture the multiplicity of lived experience. Although he has no ties to Korea, Chou does have imagination and empathy. And he clearly understands where Freddie is coming from. She's caught in a life of profound dislocation and is struggling to find herself, if it's even possible to pin down the self in such a way. Whether cutting her hair or getting involved with a new man, she keeps reinventing herself.

Such a story could easily be frustrating in its lack of closure. But I was held rapt by Park's bristling performance as Freddie, one made all the more astonishing because she's never acted before. Wow, does she have presence. Chou's camera carefully studies her features, which always contain something deep and wild and unknowable. The director Claire Denis, whose work this movie sometimes recalls, remarked that Park seems to resist being caught by Chou's camera. She's right. And Park's resistance gives the movie its singular, mysterious edge. In fact, her work here is more fascinating than any of this year's Oscar nominees for acting. Jean Luc-Godard is famous for saying that all it takes for a movie is a girl and a gun. Carried aloft by its star, "Return To Seoul" proves that sometimes you don't even need the gun.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new film "Return To Seoul." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be writer Thomas Mallon. We'll talk about excerpts of his diaries that were recently published in The New Yorker in a piece titled "Finding My Way - And Staying Alive - During The AIDS Crisis: A Diary Of Nineteen-Eighties Manhattan." Mallon was in his 30s then. His latest novel is based on the life and murder of Dick Kallman, a closeted actor in the 1950s and '60s. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC MILLER'S "CHAOS THEORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue