Halfway into Davy Chou’s predominantly French Return To Seoul, I was close to giving up hope and adding it to the list of films with an insufferable, cruel lead with troubled emotions masquerading as her quirks. Lucky for me, the film devotes just enough time to convincingly communicate that it’s more sensible and self-aware than it may have seemed right off the bat. It’s a tremendous challenge not to pick sides in a passive-aggressive battle of helpless abandonment and the subsequent rage that permeates the entirety of a person’s life. Yet Return To Seoul is cautious in the wreckage it allows the one who’s perpetually in a state of being eaten alive by pain. And it never stretches its boundaries more than it’s supposed to in order to accommodate the ones who tried to do the right thing and inadvertently messed someone up for life.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Return To Seoul’?
There’s hardly anything “accidental” about Freddie’s abrupt visit to Seoul. Sure, the typhoon canceling her trip to Japan might not have been fictitious, but there’s a reason why she’s hopelessly drawn to Korea, even though the 25 years of her existence have been spent in France with her loving parents living a fairly great life. The thing about knowing that you were adopted and not knowing who gave you up and why is that no matter what life offers, the ambiguity of your origin will forever puppeteer you. And it’s that very pull that brings Freddie to Seoul and gives her a friend in Tena, the girl who manages the guest house she’s staying in. Even without a window into her past, the odd impression that Freddie makes is quite immediate, and that can be chalked up to just how exuberant she is in her impulsive expressions of freedom.
But if you take a closer look, the reason why she is the kind of person who’d get a whole restaurant full of people gathered at the same table and sleep with one of them on the same night is that she doesn’t really open her heart to anybody or anything. The look on her face is that of a person too terrified to show a sign of vulnerability lest the flood of tears she’s been holding in breaks out. And that doesn’t change even when she gets to know of Hammond, the adoption agency where she was dropped off. There hasn’t been a more evident embodiment of unease than the disquietingly tongue-tied girl, whose silence goes deeper than the language barrier, as she sits before her trembling birth father and his family.
How Is Freddie’s Relationship With Her Father?
One can’t particularly blame Freddie’s overall discomfort around her father and his family on her general French snobbery. As sweet and surprisingly happy to get to know her as they may be, they’re also extremely overbearing for people who are just getting acquainted with someone they’d abandoned as an infant. One has to be overly critical of Freddie to condemn her for not wanting her inebriated father to bombard her with texts or her overly affectionate grandmother to caress her hair in the middle of the night. Her father building castles in the air and daydreaming about them being a family must be a nightmare for Freddie, who’s merciless in her steadfast intent to keep the world at arm’s length. Although there’s a lot to genuinely like about the abundance of love the family, including her father’s wife, showers her with, what understandably catches her off guard is the blanket patriarchy that controls every aspect of who they are and what they do. It’s not an easy task to like Freddie.
It’s even harder to defend her when the sharp edges of her broken heart eviscerate anyone who’s unfortunate enough to get attached to her. The morbidly addictive peaks and valleys of loving someone who only cares when it serves her define virtually any dynamic Freddie forms with someone who falls for her manipulations. The toxic relationship she’s forged with her Korean identity and the blood that flows through her veins isn’t any different. The plan to spend an afternoon with her dad’s family stretches to three days, and her two-week stay lingers on for at least two years. What Freddie’s convinced herself she’s found in Korea and its people is an easy acceptance of just how lost she is. A disturbing manifestation of her eerily complex feelings toward her father finds Freddie breaking out in an unnerving bout of laughter and, the very next moment calling Andre, the old man she’d already had an intimate encounter with on the same night. The love she wouldn’t allow into her life and wouldn’t be wrong in withholding herself from reciprocating finds ways to seep through the cracks of her crisis and infects her romantic and sexual endeavors.
‘Return To Seoul’ Ending Explained: Does Freddie Find What She’s Been Looking For?
Here’s the thing about “bad” people who should come wearing a warning sign that reads “retreat while you still can”: they’re not bad for the lack of trying. However, that doesn’t give them license to leave piles of shattered relationships in their wake. You don’t really see a flicker of hope waiting just around the corner for people like Freddie. She’s the kind of person who’d turn a bouquet of flowers into mulch because the safest place she feels is within the barbed wire fences of her comfort zone, which is ready to eradicate any sign of love. So, it’s only normal to be surprised to see her without the dark shade of lipstick and the punk clothing that mask the broken little girl inside. And for once, seeing as she’s truly put in the work and made an effort to break free of her cycle of toxicity, you hope that things will work out between her and her French boyfriend, Maxime. It’s only human to pin your faith on the claim that the emotional wreckage that she causes only happens in Korea. That may be convincing in theory. But that’s not how the duality of the human mind works.
What can rationally be taken into consideration is the theory that her relationship with Korea, a country that, for her, stands as a wretched reminder of abandonment, is like that between addict and an enabler. If her poison is causing and subsequently receiving pain, her birthplace is where she feels safest indulging in it. The acute need to be worshipped and adored to the extent that she demands people be shattered in her absence has rendered her incapable of ever forming a healthy relationship with anyone. And it’s her fragile, narcissistic ego that is butchered when her father appears to be doing well. The wrath she’s unable to unleash on the poor man at the restaurant is the same wrath that’s redirected and released at Maxime, who bears the brunt of her horrendous trigger and is dumped in the most humiliating way possible.
The most unrealistic and erratic expectations of love come from those who’ve been rejected by the fundamental senses of the same. The hole left behind by the conscious, most unwavering knowledge that one’s very existence was left to chance because the people who created them couldn’t bother to follow through is something that can’t be filled with anything else. Even her odd career as an important associate at a company that sells weapons to agencies and governments doesn’t give her a sense of accomplishment, no matter how ludicrously she tries to believe that handing weapons to a country’s government for defense isn’t the same thing as pointing a missile at another country. It’s a volatile amalgamation of curiosity and a helpless craving for love and validation that makes Freddie hanker for her mother’s answer to Hammond’s telegrams. Devoid of a smidgen of self-awareness that would’ve shown her that she’s burning the world around her with the rage that is juiced up every time a telegram goes unanswered, Freddie is likely to go on hurting everyone who comes close. Her sense of self-worth is too damaged for her to fully appreciate all the kindness that she receives without having to ask, and that includes the supremely generous action of a Hammond employee who broke the law to repeatedly reach out to her mother. Yet, despite all of her unforgivable traits, you can’t help but wish for a better future for the girl who breaks down in tears as her mother’s hand rests on her back for the first time in her life. You hope that this is it. This is the only thing that has a fighting chance of fixing her.
And when the ending sequence of Return To Seoul rolls in, Freddie, now going by the name that her birth parents had given her before dropping her off at Hammond, seems to have her heart pacified by time and the reconciliation that comes with some soul-searching. Yet a part of you holds on to the cynicism when she types up an email for her mother, claiming that she’s happy. We don’t know what the future holds for Freddie. There are multiple possibilities that can explain why the email wasn’t sent. She might have been too late in reaching out, and her mother’s email ID could’ve been deleted after her death. It might also be that she’d purposefully given the wrong ID to her daughter because she hadn’t really meant to keep in touch. Or it could’ve just been a simple case of a misspelling on the piece of paper. The Freddie we’ve come to know is likely to take it as another trigger that may again turn the trajectory of her life toward something even more dysfunctional. But since there’s no law against hope, I guess there’s nothing wrong in picturing an older, more sensible Freddie, someone who’s worked through the trauma of abandonment and has relented from destroying everything good that life’s been generous enough to offer. But maybe don’t hold your breath.
Return to Seoul is a 2022 Korean drama film directed by Davy Chou.