Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 16, 2023 2:17 pm 
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PARK JI-MIN IN RETURN TO SEOUL [Thomas Favel/Aurora Films/Sony Pictures Classics]

An aggressive search for identity

When Koreans drink together (as they do a lot: watch any Hong Sang-soo film), it's the custom that they pour each other's soju or whatever reciprocally into each other's glasses, never straight into their own. When Frédérique Benoit (Park Ji-min), AKA Freddie, is told this, she grabs the bottle, pours the soju into her own glass, and chugs it. Who does that? This behavior turned me against Freddie from the start. It took most of the movie to win it grudgingly back.

Freddie was born in Korea, adopted by a French couple and raised as French. (Her birth name is revealed to be Yeon-Mi, meaning "docile and joyful,' a rather obvious irony.) Now 25, she is visiting Seoul for the first time since infancy, basically on a whim. She likes vacationing in Japan, we learn later in a Skype conversation with her mother, but many flights were cancelled for a typhoon, she wanted to go somewhere, so here she is.

Her adoptive French mother had so much wanted to go with her, and is very disappointed. But impulsiveness is the rule with this young woman, who is pretty and vibrant, but also obnoxious and confrontational. She is so outside the norm in the Korean bar, accompanied by Tena (Guka Han), the timid French-speaking acquaintance from the hostel where she's staying who acts as her mollifying French-Korean interpreter, that her presence must be electrifying. One baby-faced boy is attracted to her and she sleeps with him. The next morning the naive, dazzled kid wants to be hers forever. She tells him to get lost. Later there is Maxime (Yoann Zimmer), a French boy she's actually been going around with she tells: "I can erase you from my life with the snap of a finger." Nice.

Director Chou, who is French-Cambodian and reports he was inspired to make this picture by the experience of a friend, may have also worked off the personality of first-time actress Park Ji-min, whose energy, charisma, and sexiness are admittedly compelling and help fill in gaps in the writing. The experience of coming back to Korea and seeking out one's birth relatives through the adoption agency can feel momentous but also painful and tedious, as was shown in Malene Choi's The Return (NYAFF 2018), which mixed documentary and fictionalized elements to show what happens to several returned young Korean adoptees. It has to be done, but do we need to be the audience for it?

This issue is largely avoided. This film, whose tech credits and acting are engaging, primarily serves as the meandering portrait of an eccentric, troubled young woman, for which the adoptee story is just a pretext. The score by Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset is rich and supple. It takes charge from that opening café scene when Freddie dances, "gyrating," Amy Nicholson says in her admiring New York Times review, "as through [she] doesn't care if she doesn't see anyone in Seoul ever again." In the Seoul nightclub scenes the cinematography by Thomas Favel shines with deep glowing colors and pleasing bluish blurs. But Freddie will soon go through the Hammond adoption agency and meet with her biological father, played by Oh Kwang-rok, an air conditioning repairman with an extended family.

Her father like Freddie behaves wildly when drunk, and is prone later on in the relationship to nagging, maudlin expressions of guilt and a desire to control. Right off he tells her, through timid Tena, that he wants her to live in Korea and let him find her a husband. As Nicholson puts it, the early encounter with him "feels both momentous and aggressively dull" - an aspect of Korean adoptee-reunion stories avoided by this film's odd structure and its focus on Freddie's attention-getting personality.

Return to Seoul makes repeated sudden, clear-cut - but unspecified - leaps forward, taking us all told into Freddie's early thirties. It shows her only in Korea and briefly at film's end in Romania on a hike and hotel stay identified only in the closing credits. There is nothing about her life before in France. As we progress, Freddie changes, but not in clear-cut or progressive ways. Her relation with her birth father and his family continues, with her relying on some Korean she has finally learned and on English as a lingua franca. Now she is doing some kind of international work. Later she is on a computer date with an older man called André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing of Mia Hansen-Løve's Le père de mes enfants), who tells her he is in the arms business and she would be great in it "Because you have to be able to not look back."

By this time she has lipstick smeared on and hair pushed down: it's not such a great look, but it's a change. Later, she meets with her Korean dad's people once again (Oh Kwang-rok, who had minor roles in Park Chan-wook's "Vengeance" trilogy, is a vivid actor) and tells them she is now, in fact, indirectly in the "defense" business for Korea.

Over several years Freddie continues going to the adoption agency and trying to make contact with her birth mother. Finally she succeeds, and this momentous, nearly wordless event is staged at the agency itself, in a safe, careful ritual that is very well acted out and reproduced in this film. This is a hushed, memorable scene, photographed very close without clearly showing the mother. Freddie is at last subdued by the momentousness of the reconnection. But it is a moment unconnected with anything else.

Director Chou has certainly gotten around the "aggressive boredom" of discovering that the Korean adoptee has (in the Times reviewer's words) "been robbed of a life she doesn't actually want to live." What most of all seems to attract Freddie to Korea, as Boyd van Hoeij suggests in his review in The Verdict, is that it's so easy for her to shock people there, looking like a local and yet acting so different, "simply by saying something that goes against the grain or would be considered not done." But despite the vivid performances, nice score, and beautiful cinematography, the jumps forward are hard to parse and Freddie's unclear development makes the film for van Hoeij "feel long and repetitive," and "the lead character is just too exhausting to watch." I agree: Return to Seoul is an uneven watch. There is fascination and elegance here, but there is also that. Wendy Ide wrote in Screen Daily that the film "is unconventional and at times abrasive" but has "a seductive, searching quality" and "a swell of melancholy" which makes for "an engaging, if unpredictable journey."

More unpredictable than engaging, I'd say. As I have shown, Return to Seoul has been extensively reviewed and showered with superlatives. But for me neither the whole film nor the main character ever adds up.

Return to Seoul/Retour à Séoul, 115 mins., debuted at Cannes in Un Certain Regard May 22, 2022. (A previous Chou film won a prize at Critics Week in 2016.) Over 44 international festivals listed on IMDb including Toronto Sept. 8 and New York Oct. 13. Cambodia's entry for Best International Oscar entry. LAFCA New Generation award. Metacritic rating: 88%. Opens (Sony Pictures Classics) New York and Los Angeles Feb. 17, 2023, SF Bay area Feb. 24 and Mar. 3 at multiple locations.

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