[An earlier draft of this post was published at Give Me Some Light on March 29, 2023.]

I hate it when this happens.

The circumstances of my first viewing of Return to Seoul remind me of the situation in 2022 when I finally saw Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World.

The Worst Person in the World was one of those movies that ended up on many critics’ top ten lists for the year 2021, but it didn’t get a wide release in the United States until the following calendar year. So, if you lived in New York or L.A., or you had the resources and the luxury to attend film festivals in exotic locations, you got to see it and celebrate it early. But if you’re like me — just an ordinary person living in small-town mainstream America like, oh, Seattle — then you didn’t get to see The Worst Person until 2022 after the privileged had already moved on from the party.

My quest to see Freddie’s quest for answers is finally complete. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

Maybe, in my snarling, I’m sounding like “the worst film critic in the world” right now. But, in the opinion of this movie-loving curmudgeon, a movie belongs to the year in which we, “the general public,” can share the experience. And there’s no risk that the filmmaker is still making changes. (Film festival releases are sometimes revised by filmmakers after the first reviews are published and before a wide release.) It’s the version that most cinephiles around the world will see, will talk about, will buy copies of.

Thus, The Worst Person ended up on my Favorite Films of 2022 list, inspiring several cinephiles to lecture me on the dates of its first screening. Yes. Thank you. I know. But I didn’t have any possibility of seeing it until February, so I’ll categorize it in the year that the world could enjoy it instead of in a way that prioritizes competition and privileged access.

I’ve gone on that tangent just to say this:

I’m experiencing something like déjà vu with director Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul. 

This one ended up on the 2022 top ten lists of those lucky enough to chase it down before its commercial wide release. To them, it’s a thing of the past while it’s only now opening for us commoners in late February and early March. And you can bet you’ll see it on my list of 2023 favorites as 2024 begins.

Good news: You can rent it right now for less than the price of a theater ticket, and watch it in the comfort of your own home on a variety of streaming platforms.

Return to Seoul has a thrilling opening act…

…which is one of many aspects of the film that I refuse to spoil for you. (Proceed with caution if you read about it elsewhere: I’ve seen many film critics detailing many — sometimes most — of the film’s biggest surprises. I went in knowing almost nothing about it, and my ignorance made possible my bliss: I was consistently surprised in ways both delightful and dismaying.

A tense meeting over a traditional meal. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

The first act introduces us to Frédérique (Park Ji-min), a French tourist in South Korea who introduces herself as “Freddie.” She seems agitated, and we quickly learn that this is because her French upbringing as an adoptee has made her both curious about, and wary of, details about her Seoul-based family of origin. A fish finding herself out of water — or at least in a foreign fishbowl — Freddie makes quite a splash. If she were a character in Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, she would be part of the gang of “Disruptors.” Like Renate Reinsve’s Julie in The Worst Person in the World, Freddie’s prone to making impulsive and risky choices. The spotlighted party girls in both films all but dare us to follow them on their zigzagging paths, living in denial of certain responsibilities until their needs for some kind of meaningful commitment overcome their reckless energy and draw them into relationships that they will begrudgingly accept… to a point. (And, it’s worth noting, both of these charismatic antiheroes have to navigate complicated emotional predicaments that occur while they’re pants-down and urinating in an unfamiliar bathroom.)

In the opening act of Return to Seoul, this mischievous traveler goes to dinner with new friends and, seemingly bored by their oh-so-Korean politeness and formality, and amused by their confusion over her very un-Korean demeanor, she decides to shake things up. What happens next is bound to make viewers uncomfortable in the best way. I was reminded of an obscure and distinctive movie — Werckmeister Harmonies — in which a wanderer transforms a bar into a human representation of solar system, with sullen drunkards drawn to their feet into a kind of dizzying dance. That’s a flashback I would never have anticipated!

From that point on, I was ready for anything — and that’s good, because the movie kept challenging me with unexpected developments. Just when you think you know what “kind of movie” this is, it morphs into something new.

The wild card has come to play. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

If there’s anything predictable about the narrative arc, it’s that the gravitational pull of Freddie’s mysterious origins will prove difficult to resist. Soon she’s investigating questions about where she came from, and to whom she was actually born. I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say that there will be drama, there will be tears, there will be hard drinking and drugs, and there will even be tense exchanges with weapons dealers. (Yeah, buckle up.)

And yes, Park Ji-min is as good as you’ve heard.

It’s hard to believe that this is her first movie role; she commands our attention with an energy that reminds me not only of The Worst Person’s Reinsve but also of a young Juliette Binoche (think The Lovers on the Bridge).

But I’ll go see it again for more than Park Ji-Min. The rich and erotic colors (which made me wonder when we’ll see something new from Wong Kar-Wai), the thrillingly inventive composition, and the bold and sometimes disorienting editing are also enthralling, bumping the name Davy Chou up my list of directors whose next film can’t come soon enough for me (and whose previous features I now need to track down). I don’t think narrative leaps have jarred me as severely as this since the Dardenne brothers gobsmacked audiences with a sudden catapult forward in time late in their thriller Lorna’s Silence. If you step out of the theater at the wrong moment, you might come back and find yourself wondering if you’ve stepped into a different movie with the same lead actress playing an altogether different character. Typically, an audacious move like this puts me off — I have to have a strong sense that such antics are purposeful. Here, there’s method in Chou’s madness: These jumps force us to reckon with Freddie’s rapidly shape-shifting self, provoking Vox critic Alissa Wilkinson to write about how this film might inspire “memories of the selves we used to be and the ones we might yet become.”

A stranger to herself on the streets of Seoul. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

My favorite films are those in which I can sense the filmmakers’ excitement at the possibilities that they are discovering.

That’s true here — it’s as if the storytellers are inspired by the gambles their own protagonist is taking. Like Freddie, they seem to be “sight reading” their way forward. Sight reading is the term that Freddie gives to her way of life — an improvisational style that can stir up spectacular scenarios, but can also send her down paths that harm her and cost her. We may not think it wise, this way of throwing oneself into performing a piece of music when you don’t know where it will lead you or if you have the skills or the soul to see it through. But the way Frédérique sight-reads makes her a compelling agent of chaos who leads us to reflect on the tension between two kinds of freedom: the freedom we need to exercise in order to discover our true selves, and the freedom we may need to surrender in order to know the richer and more resilient rewards of love.

Now that I have seen the film, I find myself wanting to read a lot about it — particularly because I suspect that there is a lot of political commentary going on in the arc of “Frédérique’s Adventures in South Korea.” But I’m also interested to see if anyone is writing about how many scenes focus on Freddie relying on a translator, and how often that translator is making rather alarming choices in what they choose to translate and what they choose to ignore. (I haven’t seen a film play with that tension so much since Sissako’s Timbuktu.)

Proceeding without much caution: Freddie on the edge of a mystery. [Image from the Sony Pictures Classics trailer.]

Having said all of that, while other critics are making much of a prominent dance scene, I found myself thinking that this might be one arthouse film too many that features troubled protagonists throwing themselves into frenetic exhibitionism on the dance floor. Freddie’s scene is great (and quite a contrast to Jong-seo Jun’s dance in Lee Chang-dong’s South Korean psychodrama Burning), but the trend began and peaked with Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, and I’ll be surprised if anyone can find a meaningful way to top that.

[Return to Seoul is currently playing in various arthouse theaters around the country. I expect we’ll find it streaming somewhere soon.]