“You are a very sad person.” This is the last time we hear from or see Tena, a guesthouse worker who befriends protagonist Frédérique (“Freddie”) in French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou’s sophomore feature ‘Return to Seoul.’ Over the film’s seven years, Tena is just one of a revolving cast of people that Freddie pulls in and out of her life.
When we meet her in the first act, 25-year-old Freddie has flown to Seoul for a two-week holiday. She hasn’t set foot in the country since her adoption as a toddler by a French couple. She doesn’t know what she wants to see. She has no knowledge of the people or culture she encounters. She doesn’t even really know why she impulsively decided to go there. She’s totally un- prepared.
It doesn’t take long, however, for Freddie to find people to be with. She’s a fascination to the Koreans she meets. Freddie looks like them but doesn’t speak or behave like them. She exudes an effervescence that the locals assess as “very original,” and easily draws them to her. Whether to be hospitable or to stay in her orbit, they stick around. French-speaking Tena plays the role of interpreter — both in language and in cultural translations. Other acquaintances serve different purposes. Chief among them are companionship and sex.
But as Freddie begins to figure out why she might be there, to search for her roots and birth parents, her long-buried sense of loss assails those who care enough to want to help her. She discards friends and lov- ers when they get too close. Even as she reunites with her birth father Kwang-rok and has one half of her origin story filled in, she is unable to break the destructive cycle of seduction and expulsion. Kwang-rok struggles to grasp Western notions of parent-child boundaries, made worse by drunken outpourings of regret and longing for the daughter he relinquished. She ignores the insistent texts, emails, and unwelcome visits from the man she had previously sought to know.
Many years later, Freddie is back in Korea. This time she’s accompanied by her supportive boyfriend Maxime. Over a cautious reunion lunch, Kwang-rok reports that he’s drinking less and has taken up composing. He plays her a basic ditty he’s recently recorded, a shy presentation of a rehabilitated self. When the meal ends, he wants to prove he’s not the clingy man she once knew. He rushes Freddie and Maxime into the taxi that he’s flagged down and sends them on their way.
But her birth father’s easy release is not what Freddie expects or wants. Moments into the cab ride, she turns to Maxime: “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers.” When his face registers shock and confusion, she repeats herself. When we next see her, it is clear that Freddie is alone. Another expelled.
Director Chou developed the story after a French friend’s similar first-time meeting with her birth family in Korea. His script weaves in the confusion, melancholy, and longing of those who seek answers of an unknown past. Casting the right Freddie meant finding an actor who embodied a free-spirited sensitivity required of its complex character. Chou found her instead in first-time actor Korean-French artist Ji-Min Park.
Park resisted the role until Chou adjusted Freddie’s character based on Park’s interpretation of how a Frenchwoman might confront the cultural norms of Korea’s patriarchal society. This sharp directorial instinct paid off. Coupled with an electric performance from Park, Chou’s changing use of color, reflections, and composition unveil Freddie’s evolution. Through the film’s three acts, we become witness to her fitful acceptance of her lineage, known and unknown.
‘Return to Seoul’ was Cambodia’s entry for Best International Feature at the upcoming 95th Academy Awards. It is only the second submission from Cam- bodia to make the December shortlist. Chou’s debut feature Diamond Island, set in Phnom Penh, screened in the In- ternational Critics’ Week section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. Each year, this program selects only seven debut or second feature films from promising new talent. Among the directors with first works presented at International Critics’ Week are Bernardo Bertolucci, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Andrea Arnold, and Wong Kar-wai. Chou’s inclusion in this list of famous filmmaking alumni forecasts the achievement of Return to Seoul.
Nearly all of the film’s 116-minute runtime is set in South Korea, the country where Freddie searches for her origin story and with that, her identity. But when we reach the story’s epilogue, we see a woman who no longer seems haunted by unanswered questions. She doesn’t seem to need them anymore. She has new places to go.
Return to Seoul opens March 17 at SIFF Uptown at 511 Queen Anne Ave. N. For more info, visit www.siff.net.