There are not many character studies in cinema done with such care and empathy as Davy Chou’s Return To Seoul. With a nuanced performance from Park Ji-Min, Chou brings to life the story inspired by his friend Laure Badulfe, who was born in Korea but was adopted by a French couple. The personal touch is quite apparent as the smallest details about the life of the film’s protagonist, Frédérique, are put on celluloid. The plot revolves around her after she visits Seoul for the first time and tries to find her biological parents, unaware that her stay in South Korea will become the epicenter of her emotionally turbulent life. Let’s deep dive into her character, which goes through a lot of changes throughout the film:
The 25-year-old Freddie comes to Seoul, South Korea’s capital, on a two-week holiday that was initially scheduled for Tokyo, Japan. We get a sense of her whimsical nature quite early in the film. She didn’t tell her adoptive parents about her change of plans and reached Seoul, deciding to stay in a guest house. Luckily, the receptionist there speaks a bit of French and acts as her interpreter for the stay. Freddie appears to have an extroverted and open personality. This is apparent when she starts to act like she is the director of a theatrical play and brings together the crowds sitting at different tables. Her sociable attitude doesn’t seem grounded in anything, though. It comes up suddenly as if a switch has been flipped, making her operate on autopilot. Tena, the receptionist, becomes our barometer for measuring this uneasy difference between the Frenchwoman and the local Koreans. The cultural difference may come to mind as a rationale to explain Freddie’s behavior, but intuitively, you can pick up that it’s something deeper. After she successfully brings the silo-like groups of people together on a single table, she picks up one young man and ends up in bed with him.
What triggered this switch to get flipped? The first clue to this question is when Tena’s friend mentioned a famous adoption agency in Seoul by the name of Hammond that may have information about her adoption. Clearly, they sensed that she was in Seoul to look for her biological parents. Why else would a French national of Korean descent end up in Seoul with no knowledge of the local culture? When her adoptive mother calls from France to check up on Freddie, she doesn’t reveal that she is actively pursuing her interest in knowing her biological parents. No matter how desperately she tries to feign honesty, she isn’t able to convince her that she has ended up in Seoul accidentally. Freddie didn’t like to be answerable to anyone. Her adoptive mother got a little disappointed with her as she thought she and Freddie had an agreement about going on the trip to Korea together. Her mother wanted to wait until the time was right, but Freddie’s search for identity had made her impulsive.
Her journey in Korea was like an episodic affair, divided into three parts. Each part saw her change a little, but the constant melancholic whimsy of the whole thing underlined her existence. The first part is where she desperately tries to get in touch with her biological parents. She contacts Hammond, and they send their telegrams to the parents. Only the father responds. There are signs that it was the mother she needed to see. The next best thing for her pursuit is her father’s family, and she does meet them, but the distance, both cultural and social, makes the interactions too awkward. She sees her father as an alcoholic man who is bombarding her with his guilty conscience for letting her go. The messy translations from French to Korean don’t let the father understand the gravity of her messages, and he starts to interfere in her affairs during the two-week stay. Perturbed, she leaves unresolved. The visit to Seoul wasn’t nearly as fairytale-like as she might have imagined. The wrath buried in her subconscious could not be exorcised. Even after finding her biological father, there was no catharsis at all. On the contrary, the whimsy and the sudden flipping of the ‘switch’ ensured that she kept hurting everyone around her.
Two years later, Freddie is seen in a completely new avatar, working for an International French Company that uses people of Korean descent for the smooth functioning of their business in Korea. She is lonely, but her life is filled with extraneous flings, love affairs and sexual explorations that keep her distracted from focusing on the identity-shaped hole in her heart. Who is she? A Frenchwoman living in Korea or a Korean trapped in France? Her biological mother had refused to meet her two years in a row. The search was cut short. Now, she was living as an alloy of France and Korea, a freak of sorts in her mind, cruising Korea’s streets, meeting up with old men for one-night stands. During one such night, she meets Andre, a French arms dealer who is impressed with her carefree demeanor, and she ends up working for his organization.
This two-year stay in Korea can be seen as the first chapter of the triptych. Five years down the road, she returns to Korea, completely renewed, almost like a born-again monk. The Freddie of old, who was whimsical and hurtful, seemed to have completely vanished, and a new Freddie, one who doesn’t consume meat or alcohol and meditates regularly, seems to have emerged. She returns to Korea with her French boyfriend, Maxime, and it looks as if she has made peace with her identity as a French woman. She appears to be on her way to accepting the French way of life as opposed to her biological father’s advice seven years earlier. Actually, on closer scrutiny, it became clear that this whole new Freddie was more of a front. A mask to hide her inner angst and melancholy. She wasn’t happy with Maxime, and when she meets her biological father again for the first time in seven years, this time with Maxime, something in her gets triggered by listening to the silent cry of her father, who was yearning for her. This leads Freddie to brutally break up with Maxime, possibly because the conflict over her true identity resurfaced like a tsunami hitting the shore. Maxime, being French, didn’t fit her coordinates of identity anymore, and she was back to square one: whimsical, hurtful, melancholic, and toxic, unable to process her emotions. The Pandora’s box that was opened seven years ago has not left her alone ever since, no matter what she tried. There is a silver lining in her conflicted existence when she gets the news that her mother wants to meet her after so many years.
This last chapter of her Korean saga ends, providing her with the catharsis she needs to continue living. Her mother actually meets her, thanks to a Hammond employee, who persisted with the constant messages even though it was against their policy. Here we see Freddie drowned in tears in a way she has never been before. The much-needed breakdown was finally there. Her biological mother’s embrace provided her with the comfort she had been looking for all along. She could feel the roots of her existence becoming meaningful after meeting her mother and the conflict of identity perishing. Her mother gives her an email address for keeping in touch, but in an anticlimactic ending, Freddie doesn’t contact her for an entire year, even after the teary meeting with her at Hammond. Her emotional underdevelopment and the fear of abandonment could have made Freddie withdraw again. A year later, when she returns to Korea and gains the courage to reconnect with her mother, the email address seems to have been removed. Her melancholy appears to be her fate. The fiery twenties have now faded into the somber thirties, and she will have to face the emotional issue all alone. Hopefully, she does, but there are no clear signs that she absolutely will. Her dual identity has to be redefined in a way that doesn’t trigger her trauma of abandonment. Music seems to be comforting, and perhaps Freddie will go on to become a composer, sublimating her conflicts into the music.