Monday, February 13, 2023

Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul

Why is "globalization" such a dirty word, to both the far left and far right? Isn’t it nice to have a film directed by a French-Cambodian filmmaker, starring a French-Korean thesp, shot on-location in South Korea and Romania that was submitted for the International Oscar by Cambodia? Of course, it is, when it is a good film. Ironically, the French-Korean adoptee of Davy Chou’s film might be the most critical of international interconnectedness, even though she becomes quite adept at mediating between cultures and countries. Finding her roots and her identity is a fraught process in Chou’s Return to Seoul, which opens this Friday in New York.

Frederique “Freddie” Benoit was adopted by a loving French couple during the height of the Korean adoption boom. Many adoptees return in hopes of finding her birth family, but Benoit initially kids herself into thinking her trip was a spur of the moment lark. Therefore, she did no advance preparation, which could have facilitated the process.

Nevertheless, sufficient formalities are settled, allowing the adoption center to contact Benoit’s birthparents, by antiquated “telegram,” so as not to be intrusive. It will be their choice to contact her, which her guilt-wracked father does so, immediately. Having separated, he and her mother seem to be a very different minds, because Benoit waits in vain for the unknown woman to call.

Indeed, very little of this first trip could be described as “storybook.” Instead of a tearful reunion, Benoit is put off by her birth-father’s awkward attempts to reconnect and his blubbering displays of emotion. As a French hipster, she has no intention of moving in with his family or letting him find her a husband. Frankly, she becomes rather dismissive, even though her new French-speaking Korean friend Tena somewhat softens her harsh words when translating for them.

Things change somewhat when she returns two years later. Instead of a French hipster, she assumes the role of a Korean hipster. Again, we meet a very different Benoit two years after that, when Benoit returns to Seoul once again, this time partly for business, now that she has one of the coolest jobs ever: international arms dealer. Don’t freak out. Benoit and her boss Andre only broker deals with governments that should have the latest advanced armaments, exactly like the Republic of Korea (ROK).

One thing is certain: Freddie Benoit is no cliché. Chou and visual artist-first-time-thesp Park Ji-min made great efforts to avoid most of the obvious sexualized or sentimentalized stereotypes. Frankly, Benoit can be exhausting to spend time with, but Park vividly projects a sense of the resentments and conflicting emotions bottled up inside her. It is an unusually complex and challenging performance.

Clearly, this film is all about Benoit, but Guka Han is also quite remarkable as the acutely sensitive Tena. Her empathy for both Benoit as well as those her new friend maybe treats too callously really helps make the film so honest and humanistic. Oh Kwang-rok (who worked with Park Chan-wook in all three of the
Vengeance Trilogy films and the short Night Fishing) is so convincing expressing the heartache carried by Benoit’s Korean father, it is often painful to watch him on screen. In contrast, as Andre, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing provides a sly counterpoint to the moody Benoit, in scenes that hint at film noir.

initially appears to be a simple film about finding one’s roots, but it spans eight years and ends in a wholly unexpected place. It is definitely Chou’s most emotionally engaging film since his documentary Golden Slumber, which held great personal meaning for his family. In this case, he finds the universal appeal of a story outside Cambodia, where his previous films were set. It is not an easy film, but it fosters a deeper understanding of the international adoption experience, for booth adoptees and birth-parents. Highly recommended, Return to Seoul opens Friday (2/17) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.