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‘Return to Seoul’ is a patience-testing trip

Park Ji-min makes an impressive debut as a prickly, 25-year-old French Korean adoptee trying to find herself

Park Ji-min in "Return to Seoul."Thomas Favel/Aurora Films/Vandertastic/Frakas Productions/Sony Pictures Classics/VANDERTASTIC / FRAKAS PRODUCTION

Unlikable characters can make or break a movie. Spending time with an unlikeable protagonist is often an endurance test on the audience’s part. Frédérique Benoît (Park Ji-min), also known as Freddie, is an impulsive 25-year-old who is trying to find herself. Throughout the eight years covered by writer-director Davy Chou’s latest, “Return to Seoul,” Freddie will alienate the people around her and, by extension, the viewer.

Her cycle of befriending and then intentionally pushing people away is repeated multiple times over the course of a film broken into three distinct segments. The question that arises is whether you will want to follow Freddie for 119 minutes on what is ultimately a fruitless journey. I did not.


As an infant in South Korea, Freddie was put up for adoption. Her adoptive parents are a French couple who raised her in rural France. Once she was of age, she moved to Paris and became a free spirit. The first segment of “Return to Seoul” places her back in South Korea. She does not speak the language, but she meets Tena (Guka Han), a Korean woman who works in a hostel. Tena’s mother was a French teacher, which explains her mastery of the language. She becomes Freddie’s translator and confidant.

We get an idea of Freddie’s personality early on, when she violates the tradition of having others at the table pour her a drink. Tena tells her it’s insulting to both parties if this simple act is not performed. Freddie defiantly pours herself a shot and takes it. She has a penchant for making those around her feel as uncomfortable as she is.

On impulse, Freddie decides to track down her birth parents. Going back to the agency that handled her adoption, she is told that her mother wants nothing to do with her, but her father (Oh Kwang-rok) is interested in meeting up. The maternal rejection will haunt Freddie for much of “Return to Seoul.”


Oh Kwang-rok in "Return to Seoul."Thomas Favel/Aurora Films/VANDERTASTIC / FRAKAS PRODUCTION

Meanwhile, her reunion with the paternal side of the family is rife with culture shock. Her overly apologetic father gets drunk and becomes irrational (a trait he shares with his daughter). Her grandmother repeatedly prays over her and the entire family thinks she’ll drop everything, move back “home,” and accept an arranged marriage. The weekend Freddie spends with them is the film’s best sequence, nicely capturing the sense of estrangement that drives Freddie’s actions.

As the film jumps two years forward, then five years, then one more, Chou drops us into situations where it feels like the most interesting parts are missing. How did Freddie suddenly become chummy with her father? When did she start working as an arms dealer with André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), a former hookup? The one constant remains Freddie’s penchant for self-sabotage, the least interesting thing about her.

I found myself growing very tired of Freddie. When Tena realizes she’s equally tired of her, she tells Freddie, “you are a sad person.” Since Tena has spent much of her screentime softening Freddie’s brutal retorts to people when she translates them, she can’t help but censor herself.

“Return to Seoul” is one of those movies I admire more than I like. The technical aspects are all first-rate. The cinematography by Thomas Favel is compulsively watchable. Chou gives him several eye-catching vistas to shoot, from Seoul to the South Korean countryside to the unnamed European country where Freddie performs the last leg of her journey toward finding some semblance of inner peace. The score by Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset creates the different moods of each segment. And the fashionable Freddie sports a wildly different and intriguing new look with each jump in time.


Freddie would be a challenging role for a seasoned professional; that Park Ji-min credibly handles it in her feature debut proves she’s an actor to watch. She fearlessly leans into the odd things Chou has her do — there are two dance numbers that come out of nowhere, for example — and she makes Freddie occasionally charming enough for us to see why someone might gravitate toward her.

I’m impressed by how unapologetically off-putting the performance is, but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed taking this trip with her. Your mileage may vary.



Written and directed by Davy Chou. Starring Park Ji-min, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing. In Korean, French, and English, with subtitles. At Landmark Kendall Square and West Newton Cinema. 119 minutes. R (nudity, language)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.