In director Davy Chou's Return to Seoul we meet a young woman with a Korean/French background (Park Ji-min) who was adapted as a baby and raised in France.
At age 25, Freddie returns to Korea without a clear agenda but soon learns of an agency that can help locate her biological parents. No guarantees. The parents may not be willing to meet with her.
That sounds like the setup for a conventional movie that takes its main character on a tearful journey of reconciliation.
But Chou has other things in mind. To begin with, he builds his movie around a character who is not especially likable, thus accepting a degree of risk more conventional filmmakers might avoid.
Chou tells Freddie’s story over the course of eight years, jumping through time and dividing his movie into segments. Freddie lives through various phases of an evolution that has no clear destination.
Early on, Freddie makes it clear to a young woman she meets upon her arrival (Guka Han) in Seoul that she has little interest in honoring Korean traditions. At a social gathering at a restaurant, she flaunts propriety, confronting a group of strangers with her daring and aggression, inserting herself into their evening of drinking.
When Freddie meets her biological father (Oh Kwang-rok), she shows little interest in establishing the connection her guilty-ridden dad craves.
Oh’s character gives the movie a desperately sorrowful core; a heavy drinker, he's mired in remorse about having given up a daughter during a particularly difficult time. He now has a wife and children but can’t accept Freddie’s indifference.
Giving us barely enough time to adjust, Chou again leaps ahead by two years. Freddie presumably has remained in Korea, where she spends her time club hopping.
She also meets with an older French man (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) who hires her as a sales person for his company, which happens to deal in armaments, a trade of dubious morality.
In another episode years later, Freddie returns to Korea with her French boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer). He accompanies her to a dinner with her father and an aunt (Kim Sun-young) who serves as a translator.
The boyfriend tries to be supportive. It doesn’t take long for Freddie to kick him to the curb, dispensing with him with a snap of the fingers. She understands how quickly stability can be undermined and perhaps even takes willful pleasure in asserting control, even if through cruelty.
You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned Freddie’s biological mother. You'll have to see the movie to know why.
Do we ever warm up to Freddie? Not really. She remains frustratingly separate from those she encounters and from us, as well.
That makes Return to Seoul a movie about dislocation, anger and living through a puzzle where the pieces never seem to fit together.
Contrarily to expectation, Freddie may not be trying to find some kind of inner harmony. Instead, she's driven by needs, emotions, and sometimes by defensive postures that have become part of the strategy with which she approaches the world.
That’s another way of saying we don’t have to like Freddie — only to find her intriguing and, more important, challenging.