Evaluate the danger and jump in.
Take a look around. All you have is the situation in front of you. There is nothing to back you, no experience, no knowledge, no history. There is only this moment and the decision that comes next. These split seconds are what form your future, each instant of reading that next note and gauging your own fear response, a guarded approach to existence that shapes volatility and self-destruction, caustically forging a path at the expense of everyone in your surrounding. Is this who you are? Is this who you were meant to be? Or were you robbed of that chance, stolen away from joy until only sadness remained?
Freddie (Park Ji-min) sight reads life. Every day a fresh sheet of music she must tackle without knowing how what it is or how she’ll play it, a lifetime’s worth of carefully built defense mechanisms playing out within every split second. Given up by her birth parents 25 years ago in South Korea, Freddie has been raised in France by her adoptive family and is now arriving in Korea for the first time in her life, all alone and with no plan for how to tackle her short two weeks there. She speaks no Korean, knows nobody, and has no contact with her birth parents. None of this seems like a problem for her – in the electrifying opening to Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul, she seems to grow tired of the film’s direction as it attempts to narrow in on her background, nearly grabbing the lens herself to redirect its focus and completely change the atmosphere of the moment.
Once Freddie takes control, her enigmatic aura becomes the film, an impossible-to-place energy that always teeters just so slightly on the brink of discovery before she reevaluates and changes the trajectory of what you might have pieced together. A roughly hewn character study by way of Olivier Assayas’ implacable, mercurial, and often destructive style, there’s a constant impossibility to it all as Freddie tumbles through life trying to understand who she is and where she came from while keeping everyone at arm’s length to protect herself from ever feeling like she isn’t in complete control. As magnetic as Chou’s direction is, the celluloid oozes an overwhelming melancholy, this pang of crushing weight that suffocates everyone, all victims of circumstance who desperately seek to reclaim something that has been long lost to the cosmos.
Despite its immediately hypnotic direction and a driving, mystifying score that blends a myriad of diametrically opposing thematic ideas to create an even deeper implacable atmosphere, thumping synths and lively drums blended with sorrowful ivories and haunting strings, what at first presents as a grim rabbit hole of returning to roots slowly reveals itself to be something different entirely. Return to Seoul doesn’t seem to refer to Freddie’s initial journey to her place of birth so much as it refers to her repeated journey back, showing her again at various points throughout the next eight years of her life as she continues to find her way back to Seoul, colliding with her past. Connecting with her estranged birth father during her first visit, she finds a broken man steeped in regret and wallowing at the bottom of a bottle, desperate for Freddie to return to him as if 25 years of being ripped away from it all could be repaired in an instant. Despite her father’s tragic desperation she is unable to find her mother, little more than a hazy vision in her mind, plagued and poisoned, wondering if her mother is out there somewhere, thinking of her. The question seems to hurt more than any answer ever could.
We never know. We could never know. Chou almost makes it a point that it isn’t our right to know. Unlike the stylistically similar portrait of drifting decades Millennium Mambo (2001), we don’t get a smoothly reflective narration of Freddie’s thoughts. We are just given a lens held at the same distance she holds even her closest friends or partners, always with the volatile energy that we could be cut off completely at any moment if she so wished. This fringe image of who she is and why she leverages her fears and anxieties in the way that she does eloquently selects what we do and do not deserve to see, key moments in the middle of it all cut off before we get the full picture, merely a floating impression and an ambiguous idea of what might have transpired. It’s better that way. Just listen as the gentle notes escape into the foggy air. It’ll always be hazy, some things there’s no fixing. But maybe someday we can slow down and start to understand the notes before we play them.