The trip itself was pure whim: Freddie had planned to travel to Japan but couldn’t get a ticket. So she has ended up, coincidentally, it would seem, in the country in which she was born.
Everyone assumes she’s there to seek her past. And not long after declaring that she has no intention of tracking down her birth parents, Freddie flips, seeking out the assistance of the agency that arranged her adoption and ultimately setting up a meeting with her birth father (Oh Kwang-rok), who turns out to be just as clingy as her one-night stand. (It’s a trait of Korean men, Tena tells her, enigmatically.) But what might have followed the familiar path of culture shock and discovery of one’s roots, in this story by French Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou — Cambodia’s official Oscar submission — becomes something else entirely.
Just what is a little harder to say.
Playing out over several years, and covering more feints and blind alleys than a maze, “Return to Seoul” jumps forward in time with only sporadic on-screen titles, leaving viewers to piece together exactly where and when Freddie is in her life, geographically, temporally and psychologically. One minute, she’s a tourist who’s meeting — and then rebuffing — the man who gave her up for adoption but who wants to make amends. The next minute, she seems to have settled down in Seoul, living with a tattoo artist (Lim Cheol-Hyun) while bedding André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a French arms dealer in town for business.
Sometime later, after an automobile accident has left Freddie with a metal pin holding together her collarbone, we will discover that she’s working for André. She’s perfect for the job, he tells her, because she never looks back. And it’s true: Freddie turns to a boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer) at one point and says, “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers.” That’s the last we see of him.
There’s also something of a feint in the film’s title, which suggests a journey, or at least an endpoint. “Return to Seoul” begins in the South Korean capital, but it doesn’t end there — or anywhere, really. If Freddie is looking for something, it’s never quite clear what that is, which is a source of frustration. In an early scene, she refers to the ability to sight-read music: to pick up a page of sheet music and play, without rehearsal or fear.
Freddie seems unmoored, anchorless, neither French nor Korean. It’s that quality — fearless, untethered and unwilling to put down roots, let alone look for the ones that have already been pulled up — that makes her so beguiling and unknowable. It also is what makes her, as a character, more than a little bit alienating. “You’re a very sad person,” Tena tells her, and she isn’t talking about clinical depression. There’s something pitiful about Freddie.
Her gift may be the ability to improvise. But in her case, that’s a solo trick, destined to be played without accompaniment.
R. At area theaters. Contains brief drug use, nudity and strong language. In French, Korean and English with subtitles. 119 minutes.