Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul)

Directed by: Davy Chou
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics

Written by Michael Clawson

In the annual rite of listing a year’s best films, eligibility quirks mean that sometimes, the finest movies don’t actually reach most viewers until well into the next calendar year. Such is the case with Davy Chou’s second narrative feature “Return to Seoul,” which checked the boxes to qualify for most lists and awards opportunities in 2022, but is only now getting a proper release in the US. Having now seen it, the movie has vaulted towards the top of my own list of last year’s crème de la crème. A riveting and gorgeous character study, “Return to Seoul” follows Freddie (Ji-Min Park), a restless 25-year-old woman born in South Korea, but raised by adoptive parents in France. On a whim, Freddie travels back to Korea for the first time, and with encouragement from new friends, seeks to reconnect with her biological mother and father. The experience proves to be messy, unpredictable, and deeply painful. “Return to Seoul” portrays a young woman as her already unformed identity is further destabilized by unresolved wounds and a tangled sense of her roots.

It can be nerve-wracking to watch, since Freddie turns to reckless hedonism as a shield against emotional vulnerability. But with masterful restraint, Chou keeps enough distance from his heroine that Freddie’s self-destructive behaviors never register as mere engines for “anxiety-inducing cinema”. In fact, Chou’s time-skipping script (the film ultimately spans a years-long period of time) passes over some of the most harrowing moments in Freddie’s long and fitful process of self-exploration. A car crash, for instance, is something we witness not firsthand, but through the scar it leaves near Freddie’s collarbone. The leaps forward in time work so well because Ji-Min Park’s shattering performance is fully realized: as years pass by in single cuts and we see Freddie cycling through different versions of who she might be, the tangibility of her rich and complex inner life remains a constant. With stunning cinematography by Thomas Favel, which radiantly captures the colorful neon of Seoul nightlife, this is a movie by artists in marvelous command of their craft.

“Return to Seoul” Trailer

Michael Clawson is a member of the Seattle Film Critic Society you can follow his passion for film on Letterboxd.

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