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Park Ji-Min is Freddie Benoit in Return to Seoul
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Return to Seoul
Directed by Davy Chou
Rated R
Adopted 3 March 2023

While conveying the detached life of an adopted daughter, Return to Seoul itself becomes a detached movie experience. But patience and retrospection bring rewards.

The French Connection

Return to Seoul movie poster

Return to Seoul is entering U.S. theaters following an impressive run through the film festival circuit, where it accumulated numerous accolades and considerable critical acclaim.

A lot of the attention is well-deserved. Most notably, newcomer Park Ji-Min delivers a stellar performance as the central character, Frederique “Freddie” Benoit.

Freddie was born in South Korea but given up for adoption to a French couple. She was then raised in France and was part of a loving household. Nonetheless, in a rather headstrong fashion, Freddie returns to Seoul in her early 20s to find out more about her heritage. She’s unprepared on many fronts; she has none of the details the adoption agency requires to find her records and she doesn’t speak a word of Korean.

It's an interesting idea borne from a kernel of reality. Writer-director Davy Chou based the story on a friend’s real-life background. Laure Badufle was born in South Korea but was adopted and subsequently raised in France. While in South Korea for a film festival (in support of Davy’s documentary, Golden Slumbers), Laure brought Davy with her when she met her biological father for the very first time.

That encounter is captured in Freddie’s story, as she learns her birth name is Yeon-Hee (which means “docile and joyful”). In the reality of this movie’s world, Freddie is anything but. She’s rambunctious, impulsive and not exactly a person who could be described as a “ray of sunshine.”

The Goal Is Seoul

The stage is set for Freddie to grapple with her own identity, which is a challenge most people face in one respect or another. For many, the catalyst is adoption, as with Laure Badufle and her on-screen representation in Freddie. For director Davy Chou, it’s his own background as a child born and raised in France to Cambodian parents. For others, it’s a fundamental search to fit in somewhere, somehow, regardless of upbringing. Yet again, for some, the whole purpose of life is to defy conventions and to not fit in with societal norms.

In some respects, in this post-pandemic world, this theme of searching and identity is even more relevant, and the need is more widespread.

Park Ji-Min is an artist, born in South Korea, but raised in France by her biological parents. This is her first turn at acting and her contributions to building the character of Freddie as a whole underscore the significance of Ji-Min’s casting.

But, stepping back from the festival hype, this movie is not without some challenges.

Park Ji-Min is remarkable, to be sure. But a by-product of the effectiveness of her character is a distance that is kept from the audience. It’s an odd sensation to feel sympathetic — and for some, empathetic — for Freddie while also finding her abrasive and incongruous. The story follows Freddie over eight years. At first, she seems to be an innocent, but it’s quickly revealed she has a party side. Subsequently, she’s turned to online dating, targeting older men, which in turn leads to a seemingly unlikely career in dealing military missiles (topically, she positions herself as fulfilling her destiny of protecting South Korea from North Korea).

And, for part of the ride, she has her French boyfriend in tow. But, ultimately, she fires this emotional strike at him, “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers.”

Last Train to Gunsan

Freddie is most certainly a strong female character, an aggressive bull in a culture that expects her to be a docile and joyful companion. She is often at odds with her friends and family and the others she meets on her life path, which includes the movie’s audience. But then again, a thoroughly appropriate sentiment is to say, “More power to you, Yeon-Hee.”

At times, Return to Seoul throws off a Twin Peaks vibe, particularly as Freddie traverses Seoul’s underground and nightlife. The music in one particular night club scene is reminiscent of Julee Cruise.

It’s a fitting consideration as Yeon-Hee struggles with the emotional damage of familial separation. She meets her father and struggles to find common ground with him. She hopes to meet her mother, but that search turns into an emotional see-saw all its own.

Given her personal and internal quest to bridge between her known upbringing and independence with her unknown heritage and related cultural expectations, the best Yeon-Hee/Freddie can do is stand on her own. And, really, that’s all any of us can do, which after the course of 2 hours, helps audiences find a deep-tissue connection with her story.

• Originally published at

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