'Return To Seoul' might break you, in the best way : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the moving film Return To Seoul, a young woman named Freddie visits South Korea for the first time since her birth, when she was adopted by a French couple. Freddie's attempt to contact her biological parents sets her on an uneasy path toward self-discovery and reconciliation. Written and directed by Davy Chou, the film spans several years and many emotions, and features a vivid lead performance by newcomer Park Ji-Min.

'Return To Seoul' might break you, in the best way

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In the moving film "Return To Seoul," a young woman named Freddie visits South Korea for the first time since her birth, when she was adopted by a French couple. Freddie's attempt to contact her biological parents sets her on an uneasy path toward self-discovery and reconciliation. The film spans several years and many emotions, and it features a vivid lead performance by newcomer Park Ji-min. I'm Aisha Harris. And today, we're talking about "Return To Seoul" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HARRIS: Joining me today is Kristen Meinzer. She's the co-host of the podcast "Movie Therapy With Rafer And Kristen" and also "How To Be Fine." Welcome back, Kristen.

KRISTEN MEINZER: Thanks for having me back.

HARRIS: Also joining us is Vulture TV critic Roxana Hadadi. Welcome back to you, too, Roxana.

ROXANA HADADI: Thank you. Thank you so much.

HARRIS: Yes, it's a pleasure to have you both here. So "Return To Seoul" stars Park Ji-min as Freddie, a 25-year-old woman who was born in South Korea. She was adopted by a French couple as a baby, and the film follows her first trip back to Seoul in search of her birth parents. Freddie befriends the receptionist, Tena, at her hotel, who also happens to speak French, and she's played by Guka Han. And over the course of several years, she attempts to reconnect with her family and figure out what she wants in life. The movie also stars Oh Kwang-rok as Freddie's biological dad and Kim Sun-young as her aunt. "Return To Seoul" was written and directed by Davy Chou and it's in theaters now. Roxana, let's start with you. What did you think of "Return To Seoul?"

HADADI: It kind of broke me apart, I guess. It - I don't want to say I didn't expect to be emotionally moved 'cause that's what I always want from anything, right? You want to be emotionally moved. But there were parts of this movie that just sort of destroyed me in ways that I did not anticipate. I am the child of immigrants, and so I felt like there was a lot of diaspora stuff that I could sort of relate to within the character's journey in this film. And there were some moments that I just really fell into my own sort of well of self-reflection. Of course, the film is explicitly a journey, but it really - I don't know. It really moved me. I almost have a hard time talking about it because I feel like it creates such, like, an internal reaction for people for whom it really hits with that it sort of is difficult for me to discuss, which I'm sure is exactly what you want on...


HADADI: ...A show where we have to discuss it.

HARRIS: I mean, I feel like it broke me apart should be just the tagline...


HARRIS: ...On every poster for this movie. But yes, I totally can understand that feeling of just - it's a movie that is hard to describe. And it's definitely - for me at least - agree. It feels like it's a movie you have to experience as much as discuss it. But we're going to keep trying to talk about it anyway. So (laughter) Kristen, you might have a little bit of a closer attachment to this story than either Roxana or I do. Not quite in the same way, but can you talk a little bit about how this affected you?

MEINZER: Yes. I was born in Korea, and I was adopted as a baby, raised in Minnesota. My older sister, she was also born in Korea and was also adopted and raised in Minnesota. And my older sister did, at one point, hire a searcher and wanted to find her biological family and, you know, wrote lots of letters and even at one point appeared on a TV show, which they kind of refer to a TV show early in the movie called "I Want To See This Person" where people are trying to reconnect with people that they haven't seen in many years - maybe it's an old teacher, maybe it's an old neighbor, maybe it's somebody they were in love with in high school. And in some cases, it was people who were adopted. And my sister was actually on that show because she was trying to find her biological parents. Nothing came of it, but it was interesting watching this movie and seeing cultural references and moments like that that I thought, oh, I don't normally see this in media. I don't normally see these kinds of things. And also, just comments that people make to her - like, oh, you actually are Korean; she's like, no, I'm French. And, like, no, you're Korean. And I'm like, I know what it's like to be told that you're something other than, you know, what I feel like I am and to have other people tell me, no, I'm something different.

I think that there are a lot of fantasy narratives out there. I'm going to find my biological family and it's going to be wonderful. And - either that or I think it goes completely the opposite direction where it's just a horror story. And I appreciate that this movie doesn't choose one side or the other. It is messy throughout. And maybe you find what you're looking for but it's not what you want. Maybe you don't find what you want. So I really appreciate that the movie is messy, like real life, that it has those little points and those little comments and those characters that, to me, feel real.

And I also appreciate some of the facts that are actually in the movie. At one point early on in the movie, she is in the Hammond Agency offices, which is, from what I understand, a very thinly veiled version of the Holt Agency, which was instrumental in the whole adoption industry in Korea. She's looking through some paperwork, and it mentions over 220,000 children have been deported from Korea for adoption. And, you know, there's little bits and pieces there about, like, how the filing system works and, no, the agency will reach out to biological parents. I'm not going to give you their phone number. You can't just call them and so on.

HARRIS: Right.

MEINZER: So I appreciate that there are actual facts in there, but I also appreciate that things are so messy.


MEINZER: And I think that that's what sets this movie apart for me because any time I've been exposed to stories or documentaries or movies about adoption up until now, they aren't messy, and they're frequently told by white adoptive parents. Like, look, we got the ultimate gift in you or they are told from somebody who is still, unfortunately, going through the process of maybe trying to find biological parents and they, themselves, are not distant enough from the story to actually include all of this mess, to...


MEINZER: ...Include everything that makes this movie interesting and makes it seem much more real to me.

HARRIS: Yeah, messy is such a great word for it because while this movie does unfold in a linear way, it jumps ahead every few years over the course of the whole film, it does seem like sometimes it's a reset. Like, so when it's jumping ahead, we're resetting, in a way, to yeah, she's in a different part of her life, but also has she gone as far - or has she come as far in discovering who she is or what she wants as she had hoped or that the audience might hope? And the answer is often, like, yes and no.


HARRIS: It's like - it's a little bit of both. But I also was very, very moved by this. And I'm not the child of immigrants, and I was not adopted, but even I could sort of find those little moments in there that resonated. And I think that's partially what makes this movie work so well is that it is very, very specific, but also, it has that universal quality because, you know, I can relate to having visited Africa for the first time - I went to Kenya. When I was there, everyone was asking me, like, where are you from? Where are you from? And I'm like, I'm from the U.S. But they were asking me, where are you really from? And I'm like, I'm not...


HARRIS: I don't know. I kind of know, but I don't really know because slavery. But they wanted to know, and they would say, you know, oh, you look like you could be Kenyan. And I'm like, I'm probably not because a lot of us did not come from this part of the continent, but OK, and feeling that sort of detachment, in a way, but wanting to connect because it is Africa and Africa, obviously, is a big continent. But that feeling of wanting to connect in a way with some place that I never actually had a connection to, I think, is something that a lot of people across the board can feel - especially people of color - can relate to in some way if they are living in the U.S. now.

And so I think it was really interesting to think about that and see how this story unfolded. And we haven't even talked really about the fact that Freddie does not speak the language. And so there's also that added layer of this barrier between her - Tena, actually, serves as her sort of interpreter for her throughout this journey when she's meeting her father.

And so I'm curious as to how that played out for you both in terms of the way this story is told because I thought it was really interesting that it wasn't just about this disconnect of not having grown up with her father or her mother but also just having that language barrier there and what that - how that played out because it was really, really interesting to watch. The director, Davy Chou, actually talked about how this is sort of loosely based on his friend's experience, and he mentioned that going with one of his friends to visit her biological dad for the first time, she had a translator, and that translator, he says, like, it was a little bit difficult because the translator had to figure out how to translate anger into Korean politeness, which I think is such - we see that play out so interestingly in this film, and I wonder how that worked for you both.

HADADI: I mean, the language barrier becomes the cultural barrier, the generational barrier, the identity barrier. It stands in for all of those things. And so the first part of this film is such an interesting negotiation between knowing how you feel and trusting someone else to communicate that and then also trusting them to communicate back what are the responses. So there's such a fascinating dynamic between these two characters. With Freddie, who seems like she doesn't want to compromise on anything, doesn't want to back down on anything, she doesn't owe this family anything, and Tena, who is trying to figure out - to your point - OK, but how do I say this in a way that makes sense?


HADADI: And I feel like the whole film is sort of that question of where are you from originally and the attempt to answer that with all of the different social striations of gender, class, family, all that sort of thing. But yeah, the script was so fascinating in that first portion, as we're sort of trying to understand is Freddie saying what she means and then that additional layer of how are her words being changed potentially to say something else that we are sort of being asked to follow. I was really impressed by the dialogue of this film and sort of how it requires us to pay attention to understand a little bit more about what is happening here outside of just her experience. What is everyone else also trying to find words for? And what is the challenge of that?

MEINZER: Yeah, that's so much of the movie, trying to find the right words. One moment I really thought seemed realistic to me - not that this has happened to me, but it struck me as very real feeling - is when Freddie is on the phone speaking French to her mom back in France, and her mom is saying, why would you do this? You just decided on a whim to spend two weeks in Korea? I mean, I know you've always liked Tokyo. And obviously, her mom knows why she would do it. And then her mom eventually says, I just always thought that we would go to Korea together.


MEINZER: So there are those things that are being said and not said. Sometimes we eventually get to what needs to be said or get to what people are trying to say and sometimes we never get to it at all. And I was curious about what would have happened if this movie - if Freddie didn't have Tena as her translator. Tena is a Korean friend she has. But what if it was an American person who is fluent in Korean with American sensibilities? How different would everything have gone if it was just a Korean American saying [expletive] don't you? Are you [expletive] kidding me with this [expletive]? What do you expect of me? I owe you nothing. Excuse me. You have to beep all of that out. I'm sorry.


MEINZER: But I was thinking, you know, a different interpreter would have completely changed everything in this movie. If she'd just had an American with her, this movie maybe would have been 10 minutes long and very different.


HADADI: And the movie is playing with all that, right? It's playing with the idea of nationality and how does that shape us and how do we then approach other countries? The scene that fascinates me the most is when Freddie has slept with this guy, and he is trying to woo her, and she just makes up - seemingly just makes up a story about her life back home to sort of get him off of her back. So there also is the sense that when you don't know the language, you can also just sort of say things...


HADADI: ...Lie in a certain way, lie to yourself and lie to other people because we also sort of are lacking the tells, right? Like, they might not be able to pick up on the ways that she is formulating these falsehoods and vice versa. So I also think that the narrative becomes complicated, too, by, like, the inability to find the right words and then finding the words that aren't necessarily true or genuine or sincere. But again, yeah, messy, right? Like Kristen, it's all just really messy and captivatingly so.

HARRIS: Yeah. And then there's just the words that sometimes we say and maybe regret saying. And, you know, I think what's so interesting about Freddie is that she is definitely an empathetic character, but at the same time, she also seems to get in her own way or just seems really closed off and hard to get to know.

Like, at one point, Tena tells her, you're a very sad person. And Freddie has to internalize that, and she doesn't quite, but eventually, you get the sense that she understands, yes, I am very sad, but she doesn't know how to work her way out of that and how to work her way through that. And sometimes she can just be really cutting and mean to people who don't even necessarily deserve it. But that's - again, that's what makes it such an interesting character study is because she's not this perfect - she's not someone you're supposed to feel sorry for. Like, this isn't trying to elicit, like, that kind of pity for her. It's more just like, this is reality. This is what she's dealing with, and this is, you know, how she is going about life. And it seems like it is very relatable for a lot of people who are - have been in similar situations for her - as her.

But it is interesting because, like, the film takes a turn where she decides she's not only dealing with her parents, but also her biological parents, but also with her career choices and what she wants to do in life (laughter). And we won't go into detail about what that is, but I'm curious what you all thought about this because it's another sort of clue as to sort of who Freddie is and also, like, how Freddie as a character is just, like, really fascinating and also kind of confounding in a way of, like, what she decides she wants to do for her, like, full-time job (laughter).

MEINZER: She's not trying to make anybody else happy, essentially, is what her career decision...


MEINZER: ...Says, right?


MEINZER: I'm going to do what I want to. I know that a lot of people put their expectations on me because of what I look like or how I talk. Screw you. I'm going to maybe play with your expectations, and I'm going to go the direction I want to go. In a way, it's - her career choice, it's just - did I see that right? Am I reading these subtitles right? Is that really what your job is now?


HADADI: I also think the thing is that there's a really interesting subtextual commentary here, I think, about, like, the individual and sort of the lies we tell ourselves when we do things that maybe aren't morally correct. So I really liked that as well as sort of a commentary on what are the limits that we put on ourself and how much do we dare ourself to do things that are bad, right? I mean, I was thinking about my 20s. I was like, oh, yeah, I did a lot of things...


HADADI: ...That I look back on, like, oh, yeah, that was dumb and ill-advised. And this movie sort of takes that to, like, the nth degree of dumb and ill-advised.

MEINZER: I was going to say, and also, if you just want to pull out a little further and see, you know, how does one person's decision affect so many others? That's what resulted in the international adoption trade, too, right? How does one person's decision, how does one government decision to turn this into an actual industry, you know, a few people sitting alone in a boardroom in a government building, how does that result in 220,000 families, both abroad and in Korea, being affected and millions and millions of people dealing with that?

HARRIS: Yeah. We kind of touched on it in terms of there have been a lot of these kinds of stories about trans-racial adoptees and also a lot of them have been told from the point of view of the parents. But where do you see - I don't want to call it a genre, but this kind of trend within storytelling as it stands now, and, like, where do you feel that this movie kind of fits into it? Does it feel sort of like a way forward in terms of how we talk about these things?

MEINZER: For me, it feels refreshing because it's not a horror story, and it's not a fairy tale. And I feel like up until now, it's been mostly one or the other. What I do hope is when people watch this, they don't just pathologize Freddie, but perhaps they'll look at Freddie and say what Roxana said just a moment ago of, like, yeah, I was just like that in my 20s. I also did dumb stuff in my 20s. And so I hope that when people watch this movie, they don't pathologize her so much as think, yeah, I did that stuff, too. Yeah, there were times that I was self-sabotaging or self-hating or hurt the people around me. And so I hope that there's some of that in audience reactions as well. But yeah, I see it as a step forward. It's not a perfect movie. There are a couple of moments where I'm like, hmm, this could have been done, you know, a little bit better. This seems a little too tidy. This doesn't seem like they know where they're trying to go with this. But I still see it as going in a more positive direction just because there is that mess. And I think we need more of that.

HADADI: I also just think from a filmmaking perspective, something I appreciated is that there are not flashbacks...



HADADI: ...To how tragic this decision...


HADADI: ...Must have...


HADADI: ...Been, to how poor her family was, to the agony of them leaving her at the adoption center doorstep. I think about the movie "Lion," which featured a performance from Dev Patel that I really liked, but it did sort of all of those things. It showed, you know, look at how Third World his childhood was, and now look at how sparkling and nice his life in Australia is. And so I appreciated that we did not have to spend time in that binary 'cause that binary feels like it's flattening experiences, flattening countries, flattening all that stuff. And this movie just kept it very tightly on adulthood - who are you and who do you want to be and who do you choose to become? And I like that it didn't sort of attempt to make us better understand Freddie or better understand her parents or do any of that stuff via flashbacks. It trusted us more than that, and it trusted the story itself more than that. You know, if we're seeing a path forward, I just - I would like movies to do that more. Have faith in us.


HADADI: Have faith in yourself. We don't need the flashback frame.


HARRIS: Let us live in the moment.


HARRIS: Yes, I completely agree. And I also think, like, aside from that phone call that Kristen already mentioned with her adoptive mother, we don't get their perspective, either. So I think it's really kind of crucial to have it live with the adoptee and then also with her parents and - or her biological parents. And I do want to give a shout-out to Oh Kwang-rok, who plays her biological father, because I think he's doing some really interesting things here with a character who, again, could be easy to either pity or despise in a different movie. You know, he struggles with alcoholism. He's kind of difficult to feel warm toward. But at the end of the day, I think that their relationship is really fascinating to watch unravel.

Well, we want to know what you think about "Return To Seoul." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Kristen Meinzer, Roxana Hadadi, thank you so much for being here and for sharing your perspectives. This was really lovely.

MEINZER: Thank you.

HADADI: Thank you.

HARRIS: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thanks so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Aisha Harris, and we'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about "Creed III."


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