Return to Seoul review: drama about finding yourself and your roots

Park Ji-min in Return to Seoul

Return to Seoul is an intense, sometimes difficult, drama about a Korean adoptee. Raised by French parents, she returns to Korea for the first time at age 25. For the next several years in the woman’s life we watch her struggle to find her roots and her birth parents. Park Ji-min stars. There are spoilers ahead.

Return to Seoul tells its story in a mix of French, Korean, and English. It suffers from the same problem I mentioned in A Small Rant About Close Captions and Subtitles. The English doesn’t get close captions. Therefore I understood the French and Korean, but missed a lot of the English.

Freddie (Park Ji-min) was raised in France by loving parents. She’s very French. She has trouble accepting and understanding Korean culture and traditions. She doesn’t fit in well in South Korea.

Her first visit to South Korea is only two weeks. She goes to an adoption agency called Hammond and initiates a search for her parents. Her biological father responds immediately. Her biological mother does not.

Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, and Park Ji-min in Return to Seoul

Freddie’s new friend Tena (Guka Han) goes with her to meet her father. Tena speaks French and Korean and will translate. Freddie’s Korean Aunt (Kim Sun-young) helps translate as well, from English to Korean. Her father is very emotional about meeting her. He takes her to a spot by the sea where he grew up.

Freddie is slightly repelled by her Korean family. The grandmother prays over her, her father drinks too much. When she leaves she vows never to go back.

But she does go back after a time. She learns Korean. Years pass. She struggles to find herself. She uses alcohol and drugs to blot it all out. She’s prone to bouts of physicality – dancing, fighting – to blot out her thoughts. She goes through a variety of men, and possibly some women. One man she meets on a dating app hires her to sell missiles all around the world. She claims they aren’t for war, but for peace.

Her Korean father keeps contacting her, but she limits the contact with him. She stops drinking, stops eating meat, meditates. She’s trying.

Davy Chou directed Return to Seoul. He made interesting choices throughout the film in terms of framing along with cinematographer Thomas Favel. The camera work definitely added to the emotional impact of Freddie’s story.

Park Ji-min in Return to Seoul

After several years, Hammond finally gets a response from Freddie’s mother. She’s ready to make contact.

The way the scene of Freddie’s first contact with her Korean mother was shot was truly moving and beautiful.

Her mother entered the room where Freddie sat waiting. She didn’t say anything, she simply approached Freddie and held and caressed her like a baby. The camera stayed close in on Freddie’s crying face. We never saw more of the mother than her hands and arms as she held Freddie. At last the mother’s love she’d needed was showered upon her.

In the last scene, Freddie does something simple but so filled with hope and healing that you know she’s going to be okay. Her pain had been so vivid and well presented, the peaceful quiet of the ending was perfect.

As I said at the beginning, this film had its difficult moments. Freddie was often unlikable. She made bad decisions, hung around with bad people. But she grows. There’s a redemptive arc to her story. It’s worth sticking around for.

In Freddie’s story, the Hammond agency had files and records about her birth and both her parents. Many Koreans adopted by Westerners have issues with the process and the records (or lack of records) regarding their birth. A report on NPR states, “About 200,000 South Koreans, mostly girls, were adopted overseas during the past six decades, mainly to white parents in the United States and Europe.” This personal and specific story is actually part of a much larger situation.

The film is available on Prime Video. If you watch it, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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