Return to Seoul review: A young woman searches for her parents in this mesmeric, daring drama

Go back to your roots, we’re always told, and you’ll find your heart’s true home. But in Davy Chou’s daring and mesmeric Return to Seoul, an adoptee’s search for her birth parents tears open wounds and unearths neither meaning nor resolution. Freddie (Park Ji-Min) is in her mid-twenties, a French woman adopted from South Korea at birth. She finds herself in Seoul after a trip to Tokyo is disrupted by a typhoon. That’s the excuse she gives to her adoptive mother back home, at least, having kept her entirely in the dark about this unforeseen odyssey.

Freddie insists to all, in fact, that she isn’t even here to track down her birth parents. She’s happy to wander, to draw strangers into her orbit with bottles of soju and a charming recalcitrance when it comes to local customs. They tell her it’s rude to fill up her own glass. She pauses, chews over the request, and then gleefully ignores it. Yet, soon enough, Freddie walks through the door of the adoption agency that processed her through their system over two decades ago. Requests to meet are issued to her birth parents. Her father (Oh Kwang-rok) responds. Her mother does not. He’s a drink-addled wreck, too desperate in his regrets to consider Freddie’s own discomforts. He wants her to move in with his family, marry a Korean man, and learn the language.

Park, in a phenomenal debut performance, presents Freddie’s manufactured indifference as if it were a steel helm – a protection she wears against the forces of honesty and sincerity. When she speaks, her eyes burn with a lifetime’s worth of grievances. “He has to understand that I’m French now,” she says of her father. “I have my family and friends over there. I am not going to live in Korea.” When she stays silent, you can almost hear the glass-like shattering of her soul. She seduces young men and women with abandon. She dances like there’s electricity frying her muscles. She moves through the city as if she’s hell-bent on causing it pain.

Chou, inspired by a real-life friend’s reunion with her birth father, resists every temptation to soothe Freddie’s soul-sickness by simple means. She’s never defined by what she finds, but by what she still lacks. As the film returns to her, at several points over the course of eight years, we discover that she’s trapped in a cycle of constant reinvention. She turns into a femme fatale with blood-red lips. She sheds her dignity to chase a dictatorial sense of control in the arms manufacturing industry. She cuts her hair and hikes across Europe.

Chou’s camera does its best to keep up with her, as she barrels through clubs and down alleyways, her steps hastened by a Bauhaus-like, post-punk score. Seoul’s buzzy, neon nightlife frequently turns cold and hostile. But it’s clear where Freddie’s mind keeps going; at one point she confesses to a date, “Did my mother think about me? Somewhere?” For Freddie, and for so many living with an unstable sense of their own identity, it’s hard to live beyond those unanswered questions.

Dir: Davy Chou. Starring: Ji-Min Park, Oh Kwang-rok, Guka Han, Kim Sun-young. 15, 119 minutes.

‘Return to Seoul’ is in cinemas from 5 May