Cannes 2022: Davy Chou’s Superb ‘Return to Seoul’ About Adoption
by Alex Billington
May 24, 2022
There have been many films made before about what it’s like to be an adopted child from a far away country, how hard it is and all the psychological challenges that come with it. But there has never been a film like this before, telling a brutally honest story of one young Korean woman who grew up in France and her struggles with emotions. Return to Seoul (originally Retour à Séoul in France) is the second feature film made by filmmaker Davy Chou, who seems to be telling a story similar to his own about being raised in France as an adoptee. It’s also going under alternate the English title All the People I’ll Never Be, and it’s premiering at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. Unlike many other films about adoptees, everything doesn’t get better when they go home and rediscover their original country or find their parents, it’s not a feel-good story of redemption and rediscovery. It’s a much harsher look at how hard it is to try and meet or find the biological parents, and how much this can mess with the minds of those struggling with it.
Chou’s Return to Seoul follows a French woman named Freddie, played by newcomer Park Ji-Min in her acting debut, hand-selected by the filmmaker after a friend recommend her. When the film opens she has arrived in Seoul on a surprise trip, and thanks to the help of new friends who speak French (as she doesn’t speak any Korean) she begins to enjoy the city. Soon she finds herself at the adoption center which begins her journey to try and find her biological parents, now separated, as well as her own journey to self-love and understanding. It feels very cathartic for the filmmaker to express these complex emotions in a film. That authenticity matters. I have no experience at all with this life and learned so much about being an adoptee from this film, more than I have from almost any other film. It’s a fresh, stylish film that is deeply moving, and hard to shake because it’s so truthful. An exceptionally bold, honest story about how adoptees meeting parents can really screw them up even further. It’s not always beneficial, despite the belief that it might be.
It’s a tough one to watch because the main character is such a broken, sad person and it’s honest about that. I was astonished that it admits this and doesn’t shy away from the fact that she is troubled, not showing her as some “cool girl” just for the sake of look how badass she is. She’s not – she’s awful and broken. Not all adoptees are like this, it’s only a story for this film. But I very much appreciate how compassionate the film is in showing how it takes years and years of time to process and work through this kind of psychological trauma. I really wanted to hate her for half of the film. But the filmmaking allows us to sympathize with her in the slightest of ways, because it’s so delicately nuanced in how Chou portrays her psychological situation contributing to her behavior and agitated personality. And it’s not something she can fix easily, she must go on this journey and she must evolve from one kind of person into another to finally grow out of the sad, soulless person she was into the beautiful person that deep down I think she knows she has a potential to be.
The film very carefully and sincerely gets into the truth about how this kind of psychological trauma can really destroy people. There’s a small subplot hidden in the film involving her taking on a job as a weapons sales expert, even going to South Korea to sell them missiles. It’s such a crazy development but ultimately what I think Chou is trying to say is that yes, the people who take on these jobs are soulless, but they’re also broken and this is one example of why and how that can happen. So while of course she is the bane of evil selling weapons for a living, it’s also a reminder that hey, people are messed up inside and totally torn apart and hurting, and we need to give them some compassion and understanding. They deserve that. These are the kind of people that take these jobs but some of them are also on a long-term, painful path of growth. It’s extraordinarily bold for a filmmaker to even try to say this and do it in a what that doesn’t instantly make us want to hate the person and never give them a chance. It’s never stated outright, but clearly is in the subtext.
I haven’t been able to shake this film or stop thinking about it for days so far after first seeing it in Cannes. It really makes you think about her situation and all that she’s going through. And it’s exceptionally hard to make a film about a messy, broken, vile person (the way she treats everyone around her is so harmful) and make audiences appreciate and understand them, even sympathize with them. Chou allows us to follow her through years of time without being obvious or heavy-handed in his explanation of what’s going on. There’s so much skill in the filmmaking that, as far as I can tell, comes from Chou exploring his own feelings and his own experiences of being an adoptee. The result is something we should celebrate and cherish as cinematic art that is cathartic and touching. A film that encourages us to be more open and empathetic even if we don’t have any connection to other people who might’ve been raised differently than us. It’s not an easy task to be compassionate, but we have to try, and we have to give others time… Time to grow and work on themselves.