Bright neon lights shine on Freddie’s face as she is dancing alone through a half-empty bar in Seoul. Even as her body moves frantically, her face seems to have no visible expression. She just rejected the man she was sleeping with. Freddie is also about to break her only meaningful friendship as she tries to kiss Tena. As she rejects her, Tena tells Freddie in a heavy French accent, “You’re a very sad person.” This scene, although mid-way through the movie, truly encapsulates what Davy Chou’s latest film is all about. Return to Seoul (2022) is more than just a portrait of a displaced individual. Chou’s film strays away from romanticized representations of reunions and returns that so often plague these types of movies or themes presented in Return to Seoul. In the centre of this (inner) conflict, Chou explores three clashing axes of language, identity and the city through Freddie.
The film follows Freddie, a Korean-born French-adopted young adult as she goes to Seoul and ends up meeting her biological parents. Freddie never planned to do either. She intended to go to Japan, stay a couple of days in Korea, and then leave. However, due to fate or her subconscious choice-making, Freddie is thrown into a convoluted space where she will have to contend with her relationship with herself.
Chou creatively locates Freddie in situations where verbal communication is of utmost importance, where a misunderstanding can lead to frustrating consequences. Hence, Freddie’s inability to faithfully convey her feelings or having to rely on translators who change the severity of her words, burns like a raging fire inside of her. Her anger, in turn, keeps fueling the broken communication she has with most people in her life. Her social circle in Korea will never truly understand what it is she wants to reveal about herself, either because of her emotional alienation or maybe due to the deeply embedded sense of patriarchal nationhood Freddie encounters. However, Chou uses the language barrier as a tool to convey a deeper issue in Freddie’s life. We notice that communication with peers that share her language is difficult for her as well. She is unable to connect and establish long-lasting relationships for reasons that although connected to language stem from a much deeper place.
Chou aptly develops Freddie’s social powerlessness into her identity issue which is her staunch stubbornness to adapt both to her surroundings and to different social situations. Freddie has an absolute aversion to anything she does not know and tends to fall into a vicious cycle of self-deprecation and substance abuse. Throughout Return to Seoul, we see Freddie repeating the same mistakes over and over in an ouroboric narrative, constantly returning to the place where she began, finding herself equally lost, like a shipwreck floating in a sea of anger, guilt and solitude. This existential premise keeps Freddie from developing into the person she strives to be. She is always two steps behind the woman she wants to be because she cannot find the woman she is in the present. Freddie is ultimately a character that struggles to love herself and those around her but she is not an apathetic human being. Her complex relationship with her past, guilt, pain, anger, and frustration seem to be foreign feelings to herself as well. She does not recognize herself in them but can recognize them in others.
The anonymous buildings that tower over her, are the cosmopolitan tableau where millions of people, just like Freddie, are infinitely trying. Freddie acts as a blueprint for people who are trying to lose themselves in the city as they try to get to know themselves. Chou’s Seoul is where hope contends the vicious vile nature of life. The Korean capital plays a vital role, not so much because it is Seoul, but because it is the transitional space Freddie constantly inhabits. Davy Chou’s Seoul is a collection of nameless restaurants, bars, underground clubs and narrow streets that cater to Freddie’s feelings. The city is the space where Freddie fights and gets knocked down trying to love herself (or at least find a reason to.)
This is what separates Return to Seoul from many other films. It basks in feelings that are hard to talk about, on truths difficult to swallow. Yet it also highlights the importance of this experience for people like Freddie (or me) who have been struggling to belong to a place that feels so cold and distant. A place that many call home but we cannot get over the nameless narrow streets and empty bar tables where we spend most of our time. Because there is something Chou understands that not many can—the anger, frustration, and guilt of returning, back home or to yourself. But Return to Seoul never feels exploitative or apologetic, nor does it victimize Freddie—and what a refreshing feeling that is.
In short, Davy Chou’s film is a ballad for the unrecognized unromantic feelings that take over people upon facing the challenges of a journey centred around return to the place of one’s birth… and what a beautifully chaotic ballad it is.