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'Return to Seoul' is a funny, melancholy film that will surprise you start to finish

Park Ji-min stars as a young woman who was raised by adoptive parents in France in<em> Return to Seoul.</em>
Park Ji-min stars as a young woman who was raised by adoptive parents in France in Return to Seoul.

In his great novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino makes a whimsical list of the many different kinds of books. One of them is called "Books Read Before Being Written" -- meaning they're so predictable you know every beat in advance. This same genre thrives at the movies, where I often feel that I'm once again viewing a story I've been watching my whole life.

That's why I was so excited by Return to Seoul, a funny, melancholy, music-laced film that surprised me from start to finish. Written and directed by Davy Chou, a Cambodian French director, the movie starts off like a sentimental fish-out-of-water story about a young woman's search for her roots. But it quickly becomes clear that we're seeing something stranger and stronger.

First time actor Park Ji-min stars as Frédérique "Freddie" Benoît, who was sent from South Korea to France as a baby and raised by a white French couple. Now 25, Freddie feels herself French — she doesn't speak any Korean — and a photo of her birth mom is all she has of Korea. But her life takes a strange turn when a typhoon changes her travel plans mid-trip and she winds up in Seoul. She's not exactly sure what she's going to do there, besides wander around in her headphones, drink too much, and hook up with cute strangers.

Freddie's not in search of her Korean origins. But many of the people she meets in Korea want her to be. It's as if they want her to behave like the heroine of a soppy immigrant drama about getting in touch with her family past. And because Freddie is aimless, she does wind up at the adoption agency that sent her (and countless other Korean babies) to the West. And this agency does put her in contact with her boozy birth father, a touching, absurd figure wonderfully played by Oh Kwang-rok, who wants her to move in with his family. Their first encounter — complete with weeping grandma and aunt who erratically translates their conversation — is a triumph of droll awkwardness.

Although her dad dreams of reconciliation, Freddie is cussedly, almost seethingly, willful. She's a born refuser who bridles at people telling her what she ought to do. Early on, she's out drinking with two nice young Koreans who speak French. When she starts to pour herself a glass of soju, they stop her and say that, in Korea, pouring your own drink is considered an insult to your companions. She registers the point, then promptly fills her a glass with soju and swallows it down.

The rest of the movie unfolds in similar fashion with Freddie never quite doing what we — or those around her — expect. With its shifting palette and attentive eye, Chou's style respects her unruliness. Rather than weave itself into a tidy narrative complete with tailor-made epiphanies, Return to Seoul lurches through eight years in a series of sharp, unpredictable episodes. Along the way, Freddie gets involved with a louche older Frenchman, takes a job selling weapons and half-heartedly seeks her birth mother.

Freddie is clearly searching for an identity, yet neither she nor the movie defines identity in terms of race, nationality or family — notions that Chou, himself a cultural outsider, thinks too broad to capture the multiplicity of lived experience. Although he has no ties to Korea, Chou does have imagination and empathy, and he clearly understands where Freddie is coming from. She's caught in a life of profound dislocation and struggling to find out who she is, if it's even possible to pin down the self in such a way. Whether cutting her hair or getting involved with a new man, she keeps reinventing herself.

Such a story could easily be frustrating in its lack of closure, but I was held rapt by Park's bristling performance as Freddie, one made all the more astonishing because she's never acted before. Wow, does she have presence! Chou's camera carefully studies her features, which always contain something deep and wild and unknowable. The director Claire Denis, whose work this movie sometimes recalls, remarked that Park seemsto resistbeing caught by Chou's camera. She's right, and Park's resistance gives the movie its singular, mysterious edge. In fact, her work here is more fascinating than any of this year's Oscar nominees for acting.

Jean Luc-Godardis famous for saying that all it takes for a movie is a girl and a gun. Carried aloft by its star, Return to Seoul proves that sometimes you don't even need the gun.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.