Someone struggling with their identity is a character that the right storyteller can make incredibly cinematic. A not yet fully formed person just is the best putty in a filmmaker’s hands. Look no further than Lost in Translation, for example, to see it done amazingly well. Playing at the 60th New York Film Festival, Return to Seoul is one that also manages to do it well. The movie takes a decidedly more independent and esoteric path, but the principle is, at least in broad strokes, similar. Combined with a riveting lead performance, the mix is on point, making the flick one of the most intriguing to be showing at NYFF this year.
Return to Seoul is a mood piece, to be sure. Looking for a strict narrative tale is a fool’s errand here, as no one involved is trying to do that. You’re just meant to follow along as the story unfolds, tagging along. It’s unconventional, without question, but even in spite of itself sometime, the film does end up working.
Twenty-five-year-old Frédérique Benoît, known to friends as Freddie (Park Ji-Min), is a woman walking between two world. A French woman for most of her life, we meet her as she’s returning to Korea, the country she was born in before being adopted by a French couple. This is her first time back since then, so Seoul is essentially brand new to her. She looks the part, as she’s told by friends, but she doesn’t speak the language or have any real identity here. If anything, she’s French.
As Freddie wanders, engaging in hookups and drunken escapades, her reasons for being there remain elusive. There’s talk of an adoption agency, but largely, this is a mystery not looking to be solved. Once there’s a big time jump in the third act and Freddie has become a missile saleswoman, you can tell that this elusive nature is hardly by accident.
The lead performance of first time actress Park Ji-Min is really terrific. She keeps you at arm’s length, surely, but you’re consistently fascinated by her. The character seems to be going in all of the most random directions, but it makes an odd bit of sense. Supporting players include Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Oh Kwang-Rok, Régine Vial Goldberg, and Yoann Zimmer, but it’s really a one woman show, and what a show it is.
Filmmaker Davy Chou follows the beat of his own drummer, but it’s to the film’s benefit. He almost always zigs when you expect him to zag. Return to Seoul could stand to have bit tighter pacing to it, but as a mood piece, you’re either in or you’re out. In short order, you’ll almost certainly find yourself in.
Return to Seoul may frustrate less patient audience members, but for those willing to go along with where Davy Chou is taking you, the movie pays dividends. It’s very much the sort of international cinema that NYFF gravitates to, so it’s all the more gratifying that this is one of the good ones. Watch out for Chou and star Park Ji-Min, as they’re both going places.