Image credit: MUBI
Return to Seoul is a powerful and poignant drama that explores complex themes of identity, belonging and family. The film follows Freddie, a 25-year-old French woman who was adopted from South Korea as a baby, as she returns to her birth country for the first time after a flight cancellation. She decides to track down her biological parents, but her journey takes a surprising turn as she encounters unexpected challenges, emotions and new relationships.
The film is directed and written by French Cambodian Davy Chou, who based the story on the life of his friend Laure Badufle, a Korean adoptee who also served as a script consultant. Chou captures the beauty and diversity of Seoul with stunning cinematography and a vibrant soundtrack, while also portraying the harsh realities and prejudices that Freddie faces as a foreigner and an adoptee. The film does not shy away from showing the dark side of adoption, such as the trauma, the guilt and the rejection that both Freddie and her parents experience.
The film is anchored by a remarkable performance from Park Ji-min as Freddie (unbelievably, this is her first-ever film role), who delivers a nuanced and authentic portrayal of a young woman searching for her roots and her identity. Park conveys Freddie’s inner turmoil, anger and vulnerability with subtle expressions and gestures, making us empathize with her even when she acts selfishly or cruelly (her dance scene in a bar is a particular highlight). She is supported by a strong cast of actors, especially Oh Kwang-rok (well-known in Korea) as her Korean father, who gives a heartbreaking performance as a man who regrets giving up his daughter and tries to make up for lost time, though his drunken behaviour does not make this easy.
One of the standout features of Return to Seoul is its stunning cinematography. From the bustling streets of Seoul to the tranquil countryside, the film captures the beauty and diversity of South Korea's landscapes with breathtaking precision. The camerawork is both intimate and expansive, allowing us to feel like we are right there with the main character on her journey.
The film's storytelling is equally impressive. The script is tightly written, and the pacing is excellent. As we follow the protagonist on her quest to connect with her past, we are drawn into a rich and complex web of relationships and emotions. The film is heartwarming, humorous, and thought-provoking, leaving us with a deep appreciation for the importance of family and cultural heritage.
Return to Seoul is a moving and memorable film that offers a fresh and honest perspective on adoption, culture and identity. It is certainly one of the best films of the year and deserves to be seen by a wide audience. After a successful screening at the London Korean Film Festival last year (where this viewer originally saw it), Return to Seoul is now showing in wide release at cinemas across the UK thanks to distributor MUBI, and it will be featured on MUBI's UK streaming platform (MUBI.com) starting July 7.
-Timothy Holm for the KBCE