Tuesday 6 June 2023

No direction home: "Return to Seoul"

Much feted at last year's Cannes, Davy Chou's
Return to Seoul puts a new twist on a familiar movie theme, being the tale of a fish dipping a fin into water she doesn't know whether she will sink or swim in; indeed, just by dipping in that fin, said fish threatens to disrupt the placidity and pH of the water forever. It promises, in short, both drama and urgent environmental survey. Our heroine (Park Ji-min) is a young woman born in Korea as Yeon-hee ("it means docile and joyous") who was put up for adoption as an infant and eventually raised in France by new folks who rechristened (read: Westernised) her as Frédérique. Freddy, as she now calls herself, has drifted back to Seoul for the first time since her youth, with no memory of the place, only a vague idea of what she intends to do there, and liberal values that set her in polar opposition to her politely conservative hosts. Chou establishes the latter from an early restaurant scene in which Freddy breaks local convention by helping herself to alcohol (rude: custom dictates you must let others pour for you) and rearranging her fellow diners to meet her need for conviviality and connection; she later wakes up next to one of them, and shocks the poor fellow by demanding that they fuck again. A crucial narrative detail is that Seoul was actually Freddy's second-choice destination, after a tornado warning prevented her from reaching Japan; there are points in the subsequent feature where you wonder whether Freddy herself might be the tornado, and that what we're watching is really the homecoming of a hurricane. Seoul, in this reading, is but the eye of the storm: before the end credits, you half-fear, this tempestuous presence will have turned the whole of continental Asia upside-down and back-to-front.

This makes Return to Seoul by far the most expansive entry in the ongoing "messy women" cycle, yet for a long while, it betrays precious little of its heroine's backstory: Freddy shows up out of nowhere, leaving us to work out who she is and what's driven her there. (To extend the meteorological metaphor, she's an unexpected blip on the radar.) Himself of dual (French-Cambodian) origin, Chou appears to be playing altogether knowingly with stereotypical Western notions of Asian inscrutability. Freddy is written and presented as someone who's difficult to get a clear read on: she attempts to hijack and redirect the bus carrying her to a reunion with her biological father, before retreating into her shell upon meeting him, not knowing at all what to say to this distant stranger. (Literally: she can barely remember a word of Korean.) This fissile quality is good for the movie, leaving us increasingly uncertain as to how a delicate family matter will play out. It feels at all points vastly more dangerous for the world of the film that a character who neither respects nor acknowledges boundaries should be skirting around so close to the 38th Parallel. The family business boils down to a dramatic push-me-pull-you: in picking up and pursuing leads connecting her to her birth parents, Freddy tests, gnaws away at and in some cases wilfully sabotages pre-existing bonds. More pulse-racing yet is her personal life, as - thanks again, Tinder - a young woman with established daddy issues gains access to a visiting weapons manufacturer (Father of My Children's Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, shoring up the French funding) and an exciting new career in the armaments trade. Freddy travels this way with some notion of making peace with her past; yet in looking for lebensraum, she winds up going to bat for war - externalising her own internal conflicts - and Chou knows this makes her both thrilling and terrifying to be around.

By all accounts, Park hadn't acted before; she was an artist and French-Korean translator recommended to Chou in pre-production. Yet there are transferrable skills there, especially in a film so alert to the fraught but vital process of translation, whether that be of words, emotions or entire cultures. (And as in linguistic translation, what's not said is often as important as what is.) Perhaps more noteworthy is how Return to Seoul hands a newcomer a role for which more established names would kill: the loose cannon a film has to organise itself around, because there may be no other way to accommodate such lurching, restless energy. Park has been afforded an uncommon freedom to roam (within shots, between personas): it's on fullest display in the mid-film dance sequence that is at once an assertion of independence and quasi-training montage. In a previously sedate bar, Freddy rolls up her sleeves, exposes her biceps and throws rhythmic punches, egging herself on, deaf to or defying the song's plaintive refrain ("You can't make it alone"). The character remains in motion throughout these two hours, but the film around her sits still long enough to spot how unsettled Freddy is, and that she's fighting for a stability - or, given the musical references that dot the film, a harmony - most of us take for granted. Her restlessness carries Chou's film into more wayward areas: the bleariest club scene since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, some impulsive chronological leaps. (In some lives, Chou reasons, there are more wilderness years than most.) Yet by dragging us along in this one woman's wake - from fishing village to arms fair - Return to Seoul covers a lot of ground, and with far greater directorial purpose than, say, the last half-dozen Hong Sang-soo films. En route, Chou alights upon a useful truth to pick up and carry with you: that there are people out there who move like spinning tops, sometimes trailing cyclonic destruction, because of the ways they were first loosed on this world.

Return to Seoul is now playing in selected cinemas, and will be available to stream via MUBI from July 7.

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