‘Return to Seoul’ review: Trojan horse of disappointment


Sony Pictures

Director Davy Chou’s latest drama stars Ji-Min Park as Freddie as she searches for her biological parents.

“A Trojan horse.”

In “Return to Seoul,” this is what our main character Freddie (Park Ji-min) is branded as by her boss, remarking on her Korean ethnicity but French nationality. For a movie born from themes of identity, loss and abandonment, this quickly forgotten term is simply meant to tell audiences exactly what Freddie is when analyzing her cultural identities. A Trojan horse of cultures with nothing inside to make her feel whole. 

However, “Return to Seoul” is its own Trojan horse — a facade of “deeper” meaning behind snobbish themes discovered to be hollow after an excruciating two-hour runtime.  

The French film premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and opened at the Music Box Theatre on March 3. The plot follows Freddie, a 25-year-old adoptee who grew up in France but visits South Korea to find her biological parents. Attempting to discover what identity means across nation borders and cultural divides, the resulting film is nothing but a mess of timelines and motives.

With so little substance to cling onto, all you can do is stare hopelessly at Park’s performance. She thankfully captures viewers immediately with her extroverted juvenility, making lively happenings from mundane situations. Considering the audience unravels Freddie’s intentions alongside her own internal battle of self discovery, having a likable protagonist to follow, at least in the beginning, makes the first 30 minutes bearable. 

There is little logic behind any of Freddie’s relationships, especially with Tena, played by Guka Han, whose friendship appears to be thrown together by happenstance. Yet, this fallacy makes it easier to fall into the plot. Like Tena, you cannot help but want the best for Freddie, even if that means letting curiosity cloud your judgment on what Freddie wants for herself. Her repeated resistance against any contact with her biological parents despite Tena’s insistence is disregarded, instead used to advance a plot dragging its feet when moving in any direction. 

Eventually, Freddie’s gradual mistreatment of those around her as a misguided response to her own anger pulls you out of the narrative. There is no longer a protagonist to root for in the devoid landscape, leaving you empty and wanting for a fulfilling ending that will never come.

Foggy landscapes and dreary scenery set the tone for a disconnected film that seemingly holds no warmth. Amid so much overwhelming sadness and discomfort, there is not enough humor or love to alleviate the unpleasantness, apart from the one-off scenes of Freddie carelessly dancing, FaceTiming her adoptive mother and energetic party scenes. 

The themes of abandonment and family are thrown in your face throughout, seen in every facet of Park’s performance and every line of overly dramatic dialogue. The general idea behind the narrative is sound enough, an adoptee trying to find belonging in the world. When the execution of something that could be beautiful and moving is done so poorly though, all you can do is scoff at the audacity of their attempt. 

The camera work is a bright spot as the only decisive movement in the film. It is precise, constantly moving around or with Freddie, successfully grounding our protagonist among unfamiliar settings for both herself and viewers alike.

There is no satisfying happy ending. You could argue there is no real ending outside of the bare-bones technical meaning of the word based on the minimal character growth and lack of momentous plot. The ending falls exactly as the previous two hours do, flat with nothing to show for it. 

What could have been a touching story of belonging is instead an overdone, unloved story about nothing. “Return to Seoul” disappoints more than it delights and with so much wasted potential, you cannot help but feel your own sense of abandonment from a narrative that never seems to care.