Being and Time
By Lawrence Garcia

Return to Seoul
Dir. Davy Chou, Cambodia/France/Germany/South Korea/Belgium, Sony Pictures Classics

Return to Seoul opens with Frédérique Benoît (Park Ji-Min), an impulsive, reckless young French woman, returning to South Korea for the first time since her adoption as an infant. And for about an hour, the film plays to the dramatic expectations of this basic premise. Having been raised in Paris, Freddie doesn’t speak Korean, and though she claims she hadn’t planned on reconnecting with her birth parents, she soon visits the Hammond Adoption Centre to see about contacting them. She hears nothing from her birth mother, but her father (Oh Kwang-Rok) quickly responds, inviting her to Gunsan to meet him and his family. A few days later she does, accompanied by Tena (Han Gukan), a new acquaintance who serves as translator. It’s not long, however, before the family’s solicitude—especially that of her needy, possibly alcoholic father—turns oppressive. And when he later shows up at her hostel in Seoul, drunk, begging her to stay in Korea indefinitely, she screams that she never wants to see him again. Neither of them can speak the other’s language, but then, some things don’t need to be translated.

From this point onwards, however, Davy Chou’s film becomes much harder to pin down. Like many an adoption drama, Return to Seoul does trace a search for personal identity—but the film is unusual in the degree to which its transformations conform to those of its protagonist, matching Freddie’s changeability with its own destabilizing structural reinventions. Following the dramatic confrontation with her father, the film jumps forward two years, picking up with Freddie as she wanders the neon-lit streets of Seoul with the casual ease of a resident. She enters a swank hotel bar for a date with an older Frenchman, André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), an arms dealer who remarks off-hand that she would be “brilliant” at the job. (“Why?” she asks. He responds: “Because you have to be able to not look back.”) Afterwards, she meets up with a local artist (possibly a boyfriend), who has thrown her a surprise birthday party in an underground club. But no sooner have we acclimated to this new atmosphere than Chou changes things up again, skipping five years ahead, with Freddie shown arriving in Seoul with her boyfriend Maxime (Yoann Zimmer). On her way to visit her father, we learn that she is there on business, having not just kept up with André in the interim, but also entered the trade herself.

Return to Seoul’s partitioned timeline, which continually surprises us with drastic shifts in Freddie’s life, may call to mind that of Paul Vecchiali’s Once More (1988). Vecchiali’s drama follows a middle-aged man’s search for happiness over the course of a decade, picking up with him each year on his daughter’s birthday, with each segment filmed in one unbroken shot. Chou does not foreground his formal conceit to the same degree, but his film similarly provides the impression of life parceled out in scenes whose surrounding gaps only become more vertiginous. Return to Seoul’s five-year jump asks us to accept that this mercurial twenty-something has become a high-powered arms dealer—and, given the codes of fiction, we do, automatically filling in the gaps with dramatically plausible, causal links. Then again, when Freddie, seemingly out of nowhere, tells Maxime, “I could wipe you from my life with a snap of my fingers,” and the film cuts immediately to her waking up alone in a deserted alley, we may wonder whether these transformations are motivated by something other than narrative exigency.

Indeed, these disjunctive transitions are startling for how they challenge our ability to make sense of the film in terms of dramatic causation. Chou does carry over important information from section to section, permitting us to put things together after the fact. But as Return to Seoul unfolds, we get the sense that how Freddie arrives at any particular situation is less important than her ability to project herself in it. By the end, we feel that we are not seeing discrete episodes of Freddie’s life so much as different aspects of her personality, revealed across a range of scenarios. Return to Seoul’s original English-language title, All the People I’ll Never Be (dropped for theatrical release but referred to in the song, “All the People You’ll Never Be,” which plays over the closing credits), effectively captures this dimension of the film. For it conveys a picture of one’s identity—one’s being—not as a fixed state, fully graspable in the present, but as something that one is always catching up with.

This is not to say that what we see in Return to Seoul is all just happening “in her head,” like some sort of dream. Rather, Chou appears interested less in how Freddie carries out her transformations than in her capacity to do so, less in the material specifics of her situation than in the possible forms of her existence. Significant in this regard is the way Chou repeatedly turns locations into spaces for performance—most clearly in an ecstatic scene where Freddie dances alone in a club, the camera tracking alongside her in one lateral back-and-forth movement. The film’s various settings are, in this sense, like so many staging grounds for being, littered with the detritus of roles that Freddie takes on and discards over time.

Near the end, the film skips ahead once more, and we pick up with Freddie as she decamps in some isolated hotel in the middle of nowhere. Her hair is shorter, and she seems to have shed all traces of her former career. Again, we may speculate about what happened in the interim; again, Chou carries over a significant detail from the previous section, as if tempting us to do so. But the eerie, depopulated, vaguely unreal atmosphere of this final location suggests that no explanation we could provide would ultimately be of much importance—that Freddie’s search for identity is not something a fixed itinerary could ever account for. What Return to Seoul finally leaves us with is the sense, as Heidegger puts it, that when it comes to matters of being, we are always already ahead of ourselves.