Movie Review: Adoptee struggles with mixed feelings upon her “Return to Seoul”

What a fascinating, layered character “Return to Seoul” is built around.

Frederique is ever-so French — aloof, patronizing and occasionally downright rude. She is young, bourgeois and pretty, an only child. That adds headstrong, impulsive and sexually assertive to the mix.

But she was born Korean, and she has returned — on what could be a deep-seeded quest, or a youthful whim — to find her birth parents. There’s a rootlessness to her, a “sadness” one Korean who befriends and aids her notes. Frederique is looking for Yeon-hee, the Korean baby she once was, the people who gave her up for adoption and their reasons for doing it.

Screenwriter Laure Badufle, co-writer and director Davy Chou and actress Park Ji-min craft a deeply-considered, utterly-intriguing character in “Freddie.” She is 25 when we meet her. She’s a former pianist, she lets on. Her trip was sudden, we gather.

And she’s done no homework, has no idea how to manage what she’s attempting to achieve in a two week vacation. Being headstrong, she has no idea how notion of the hoops that must be jumped through, of how traumatic this could be for her and others, and she carries not a single care for how she comes off in polite, well-mannered Korea.

“Bull in a china shop” comes to mind.

Chou and Park portray this quest in the most serious tones. But there’s a hint of culture clash comedy to Freddie’s manners and arrogance.

The first Koreans she meets and befriends — hostel clerk Tena (Guka Han) and her friend Dongwan (Son Seung-Beom) — are tickled to have someone they can speak French to. The film gives us a delicious appreciation of Francophone haughtiness as Freddie, from time to time, simply must remind some impertinent local (in English) “I am FRAUNCH!”

Efforts to pass on Korean customs and manners — one doesn’t refill one’s own glass at the table — are met with smiling assertions of her privilege. She barges in on other tables, toasts all around, inviting one and all to join them.

She might bed this guy. She won’t bother to teach him the meaning of “Hit it and quit it.” “He’ll get over it.” And the fact that no one joins her isn’t keeping Freddie from being the only dancer at the music pub (with DJ) they visit. She dances like everyone is watching, and likes it.

Freddie is so brusque and over-the-top that it would only take a simple phrase, never muttered but often thought, to tip this over into dark comedy.

“What a bitch” may not be said aloud. But we and some of the Koreans helpless in preventing Freddie from making a scene have to think it.

Freddie bristles at the “rules” of the adoption agency that knows where her parents are. She thinks nothing of imposing on kindly Tena to serve as translator when she finally gets to meet her weepy, guilt-stricken Dad (Oh Kwang-rok). There’s just as little thought given to brushing off his tipsy clinginess.

Park lets us see Freddie cringe, and the indecisive yearning Yeon-hee feels underneath that burn-it-all-down exterior.

“Return to Seoul” takes a conventional story and adds in all the touchy considerations such tales typically leave out. Maybe the birth parent doesn’t want to see you, be reminded of what must have been a devastating experience for them. Maybe recognizing how little you have in common with them would give anyone second thoughts about all this, mid-adventure.

One interesting twist here it the way the script suggests that the adoption agency — in business since shortly after the Korean War — has seen it all before and has an idea of what this abandoned child is going through, even if she’d never accept that.

How might such a childhood, viewed through the sobering reality of adulthood, impact your self-esteem and willingness to allow yourself to get close to anyone? Freddie isn’t just “sad.” We see her, years later, summon a lover to join her in Korea (where she’s remained) only to tell him (Yoann Zimmer) how easily she could delete him from her life.

Again, nobody says it but you can’t avoid thinking it — Quelle chienne!

Screen newcomer Park makes this character selfish to the point of hateful, but always worthy of our compassion and pity.

“Return to Seoul” shows us that no “simple” adoption from another culture is ever simple, that even if those uprooted try to “come home again” there will be issues. And with or without therapy, those can take years and a lot of life experience to work out.

Rating: R for brief drug use, nudity and language

Cast: Park Ji-min, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young, Yoann Zimmer and Louis-Do de Lencquesaing

Credits: Directed by Danny Chou, scripted by Laure Badufle and Davy Chou. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 2:00

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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