8.5

Return to Seoul Brings Complex Interiority to the Transnational Adoptee Experience

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<i>Return to Seoul</i> Brings Complex Interiority to the Transnational Adoptee Experience

This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 Busan International Film Festival coverage.

In many ways, transnational adoption drama Return to Seoul was born at the Busan International Film Festival. When French-Cambodian director Davy Chou came to BIFF in 2011 to screen his feature Golden Slumbers, his friend, a Korean-born French adoptee, tagged along for the trip. When she decided to meet up with her birth father, Chou went along for the meeting. More than a decade later, the encounter, which had Chou eating an emotionally intense meal of ginseng and chicken soup amongst his friend’s biological extended family, is brought to raw life in Return to Seoul. The afternoon is heavy, awkward and deeply frustrating—at least for Freddie (Ji-Min Park), the Korean-born French adoptee at the volcanic core of this wandering story. We follow her over the course of eight tumultuous years, as she returns to Seoul again and again, trying to understand what—if anything—the country, its culture and her birth family mean to her.

We first meet Freddie at age 25, when she impulsively travels to Seoul after a flight to Japan is canceled. We’re not given this context until well into the movie, instead thrown into Freddie’s life as she checks into a hostel and almost immediately starts accumulating Korean drinking buddies. Like the character, we have little choice over how we’re brought into this world or how we grow into it. Though Freddie may work furiously to hide it, she’s just as confused as we are. Uncertain if she belongs in this culture of her birth, or if she even wants to. Some of Freddie’s new friends speak fluent French, but most do not, which has the dialogue switching between Korean, French and English as the characters work to understand one another. It’s a depiction and theme that will continue throughout the film: The arduous work of human connection, especially across language barriers and cultures, and through the unique perspective of a transnational adoptee.

Transnational adoptions, as they are usually referred to in the U.S., is a term for a child born in one country and adopted into another. In the second half of the 20th century in particular, following the “end” of the Korean War in 1953, approximately 200,000 Korean children were adopted abroad, mostly sent to Western countries (about two-thirds of international Korean adoptees were adopted in the U.S.). This massive movement of Korean-born children into mostly white families in Western countries has been written about eloquently in many places. It’s also a story that has been told incredibly personally in various film formats. The number of Korean-born international adoptees peaked in the 1980s, which means those kids are now adults, some of whom are storytellers. In 2015, Samantha Futerman and Ryan Miyamoto released Twinsters, a documentary about Korean-born American adoptee Futerman’s experience finding out she has an identical twin sister living in France. And, in 2022, we have Return to Seoul, a transnational adoptee story, as told by Chou and his talented cast.

While Chou may not exactly embody his subject matter, he is not unfamiliar with the experience of returning to a place you have never been (or have no memory of), looking for a kind of connection. The child of Cambodian parents who fled their home to escape the Khmer Rouge, Chou grew up in France, first visiting Cambodia at the age of 25. He uses Return to Seoul to, among other things, explore that first/second-generation immigrant experience of being complexly, confusingly torn between two cultures. (Thematically and in terms of confident-yet-aimless pacing, the film reminds of Monsoon, the underrated indie starring Henry Golding as a man who visits Vietnam as an adult more than two decades after leaving as a six-year-old.)

Most of Chou’s direction is designed to forge an unbreakable relationship between Freddie and the viewer. Freddie is our tether across time jumps. The camera often lingers, tight, on Freddie’s face as she takes in and subtly reacts to everything about the world around her. When we’re not looking at her, we’re looking with her, a frequently used shallow depth-of-field drawing our attention to the points of Freddie’s focus. Even when we don’t like or don’t understand her, we are in it with her; those intentionally provoked reactions only work to create more of a bond between us, as Freddie doesn’t particularly like or understand herself most of the time either. Whether you like the character or not, the film demands that you respect her and her feelings. In a film so centered on the transnational adoption experience, an identity that has only begun to be properly explored in pop culture, it’s vital framing.

However adept the filmmaking, such a piece would fall apart without the right central actor. Park is a revelation in what is, unbelievably, a debut performance. Chou gave Park a lot of room for improvisation and input into the character, leading to a performance style reminiscent of Felicity Jones in Like Crazy or Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name. Regardless of when or where we find her, Park simultaneously imbues Freddie with a vulnerability and impenetrability, characterized by a vibrant, exhausting defiance she brings to each and every interaction. I cannot believe this is Park’s first role. If and when this film grows a wider international audience, she will be a major reason why.

Freddie’s most honest moments of connection—both to other characters and to the audience— come through music. The film begins with Freddie asking a Korean character if she can listen to what is coming through her headphones. Even when Freddie is at her most alienated and resistant towards her birth culture, she seems able to lose herself in the music of the country. In one memorable scene set in a casual Seoul club, she escapes the pressures of social interaction, of being defined and defining herself, to dance by herself; the scene lingers, as Freddie closes her eyes and is able to be herself. Later, after she has formed a tenuous relationship with her birth father (veteran Oh Kwang-rok), he shares a piece of music he has composed for her. It is amateur and simple, but it moves Freddie.

Because we almost exclusively see Freddie during her visits to Seoul, it’s unclear what other factors—outside of her identity as a transnational adoptee—might influence her restlessness. Though I missed the larger context of Freddie’s life, Return to Seoul’s commitment to staying in the moment creates an engrossing cinematic experience, an inextricable character portrait both intimate and fathomless.

Director: Davy Chou
Writer: Davy Chou
Starring: Park Ji-min, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young, Yoann Zimmer, Louis Do De Lencquesaing, Hur Ouk-sook, Emeline Briffaud, Lim Cheol-hyun, Son Seung-beom, Kim Dong-seok
Release Date: October 6, 2022 (Busan International Film Festival)


Kayti Burt is a culture critic with bylines at TIME, MTV News, Refinery29, and Den of Geek. For more pop culture analysis, including K-culture context, you can follow her @kaytiburt and visit her website.