Return to Seoul review – Park Ji-min lights up mesmerising tale of identity and alienation

An adopted woman travels from France to South Korea in search of her roots in Davy Chou’s star-making second film.

The Cambodian-French film-maker Davy Chou, a longtime champion of “lost” Cambodian cinema, made a splash in Cannes in 2016 with his dramatic feature debut, Diamond Island, a prize winner in the international critics’ week strand. For the lead role in his follow-up feature, Return to Seoul, about an adoptee who travels from France to Korea in search of her roots, he turned to Korean-born visual artist Park Ji-min, who had moved to France as a child but had no acting experience. An intense period of collaboration followed, and the result is this remarkably intimate and very affecting drama – an episodic odyssey (inspired by script consultant Laure Badufle) spanning the best part of a decade. It became Cambodia’s entry for this year’s 95th Academy Awards, and confirms both Chou and Park as major talents to watch, in whatever field.

We first meet Freddie (Park) when she ships up in Seoul as if by accident; we later learn that she was bound for Tokyo, but all the flights were grounded. Hotel clerk Tena (Guka Han) seems to spy a lost soul and takes Freddie under her wing, although it soon becomes clear that this new arrival is also an agent of chaos, overturning polite social mores with an exuberance that suggests deep well-springs of buried anger and confusion.

An unannounced trip to an adoption centre reveals Freddie’s birth name, Yeon-hee (“it means docile and joyous”), and puts her in touch with her biological father (Oh Kwang-rok), a rather hapless family man whose reaction to his daughter’s reappearance is to drunkenly beg her to remain in Korea. As for her birth mother, she refuses to answer the telegrams sent by the agency, leaving a gaping hole in Freddie’s quest.

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