In conversations among liberal people about adoption, there is a tendency to insist on the randomness of biology, to argue that an adopted child belongs as much to their adoptive family as any other. Of course this stance is right and true: “Blood” ties have no primacy except that which we socially impose. But is there something suspicious about the fever pitch of such discussions, which often take place among people who have never had—and never will have—direct personal experience with being an adoptive parent or an adoptee? Too often, these conversations double down on conventional family structure rather than embrace the shape-shifting nature of familial bonds. There is little room for ambivalence, little appreciation of the struggles that often come with adoption, perhaps because the mere idea of conflicted and partial allegiances can make people uncomfortable. On a recent Google search for “adoption stories,” I unearthed pages upon pages of articles with titles like “Real-Life Adoption Stories That Will Melt Your Heart,” “7 Adoption Stories That Will Give You the Feels,” and “Happily Ever After: Adoption Stories,” packed with inspiring anecdotes of adoptive parents successfully establishing forever homes for their children. Their saccharine tone seemed to cover up a latent anxiety about the complications of belonging, a cultural neurosis barely repressed.
Meanwhile, an extensive canon of books, films, and television suggests a certainty that goes in another direction: that a person whose ethnic origins belong elsewhere needs to get in touch with their roots to become truly whole. The 2016 adoption drama Lion, for instance, tells the story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who accidentally gets whisked away from home at the age of 5 and is adopted by an Australian family in Tasmania. With the advent of Google Earth, Saroo, as an adult, sets out to retrace his birth family by matching his scant memories with on-the-ground photographs, effecting, in the movie’s finale, an improbable, cathartic reunion.
Many diasporic narratives about the children and grandchildren of immigrants have similarly declared the necessity and inevitability of a grand pilgrimage “home” for the person who is estranged from it. Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club, a cornerstone of Asian American studies syllabi everywhere, opens and closes with the daughter of a Chinese immigrant who fled the Kuomintang during World War II. She is asked by her late mother’s friends to reconnect with her long-lost half-sisters; by the end of the book, she reunites with them and rediscovers her Chinese heritage. The TV show Pachinko, based on a novel published in 2017, and Michelle Zauner’s bestselling 2021 memoir Crying in H Mart also feature the homecoming trope. Such stories imply that one learns not only certain truths about oneself through an odyssey to one’s ancestral lands but the definitive truth.
Into this mix enters Return to Seoul, a new drama by Cambodian-French director Davy Chou that is motivated by the filmmaker’s disenchantment with the false sentimentality of existing narratives of both adoption and cultural reunification. “I watched so many documentaries,” Chou told Filmmaker magazine, and even when the stories were told from the point of view of the adoptee, it all felt “so fake.” In Return to Seoul, a young woman’s unplanned encounter with her biological origins launches a meandering search for identity that never arrives at a fixed destination and offers few certainties along the way. Just as 25-year-old Frédérique Benoît, the film’s protagonist, never fully achieves the sort of reconciliation promised by conventional adoption stories—an easy integration of birth and adoptive families, of the place one is born with the place one grows up—the film refuses to deliver a straightforward narrative or tidy conclusion. It prefers, instead, a cagier approach, leaving the intentions of its narrator’s Korean family untranslated, her own decisions and motivations unexplained.
The film opens as Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a young French woman whose travel plans have gone awry, checks herself into a hostel in Seoul. She is casual about this unexpected return to her birth country, assigning it none of the significance that first trips back to the motherland are often vested with. Her indifference aligns with her personality. She is free-spirited and outgoing, with a penchant for breaking social conventions. Closest among her new friends is Tena, a receptionist at the hostel who, along with a third companion, mentions a well-known adoption agency in South Korea that Freddie might have passed through as a baby. “Are you going to try and find your parents?” Tena prods.
Despite Freddie’s initial resistance to the idea, she soon visits the adoption agency and gets a call from her biological father, who keenly wishes to see her. The reunion is awkward. When she disembarks from the bus in the coastal fishing town where he lives, she is swarmed by his female relatives. Stiffly, while her father watches, she backs away. The overwhelming mood of her ensuing visit is one of alienation. At meals, despite the attention heaped on her, Freddie is isolated by her incapacity to understand or communicate of her own accord. To her relatives’ questions she has only bitter, cutting answers, which Tena, who has accompanied her to translate, softens for their benefit. Food, so often a wholesome bridge in Asian diasporic stories, is rendered through a morbidly foreign gaze. She barely touches the chicken, which a family member tears apart on her behalf, in her samgyetang broth; peering into the fridge in her father’s home, she spends a prolonged interval just trying to make sense of the Tupperware jars filled with thinly sliced raw meat, bean paste, and grains.
Freddie’s alienation from her father reveals itself in the discrepant emotional registers they bring to their meeting. Too destitute to raise her when she was born, he melodramatically laments his deep sorrow at the life he has missed out on having with her. He sends her incessant text messages and emails grieving the past, even after she asks him to stop. Before one dinner, Freddie’s grandmother delivers a prayer in a piercing, mournful tone, as if keening at a funeral. During the uncomfortably long performance, Freddie looks over at her, then the rest of the table, disturbed. If her father copes by ruing his mistakes—drinking copiously, reminiscing, and generally agonizing— Freddie copes by dissociating. She frequents techno clubs; concocts spontaneous diversions such as gathering strangers to eat together at a food court and brawling playfully with a wrestler on the dance floor; and, like her father, drinks copiously. They both suffer but react to their suffering in ways that are unrecognizable to each other.
Chou is fond of indulging Freddie’s spur-of-the-moment impulses with lavish takes, establishing firmly in the present Freddie’s process of becoming rather than orienting it toward some predestined conclusion. In one early scene, Freddie is seen bringing her ear to the ceiling in an attempt to hear the music wafting into her room in the hostel; in another, the camera follows her for almost two minutes as she dances, elated, up and down the aisle of a bar.
During long work-related stays in South Korea (over the course of the eight years the film describes, the young traveler morphs into an international consultant and eventually an arms dealer), Freddie grows more at home in her birth country. She picks up more of the language, learns to accommodate South Korean customs, and develops a taste for kimchi. But her belonging is relative, and all it takes is one jarring, unaccountable episode to remind her that there are things about her father, and Seoul, and Korea, that she will never understand. At the end of a later reunion dinner, her father whisks her and her partner into a cab with unsettling urgency. Baffled by this inexplicable conclusion to their meeting, she turns on her long-term partner with a single devastating line: “I could wipe you from my life in a snap of my fingers.” The encounter with her father has upended everything she thought she knew about her life—and she will also have to revise certain stories she has told herself about her career as an arms dealer, which until this point she justified in heroic terms, as a pursuit guided by her desire to protect South Korea.
Ji-Min, the first-time actor who plays Freddie, has spoken about her initial discomfort, as a non-adoptee, with telling an adoptee’s story. Chou was likewise not adopted, though Return to Seoul is based loosely on his friend Laure Badufle’s experience of searching for and reconnecting with her Korean biological parents. (Badufle collaborated heavily on the screenplay for the film and is credited as a writer.) What drew Chou to his friend’s biography was the idea that her experience had universal resonance. Perhaps we keep turning to stories about adoptees—international ones especially, today—because they are cast as exemplary characters who contend with the existential questions everybody else can afford to sweep under the rug. What does it mean to belong—to a family, a country, or anything at all?
Over the course of the film, Freddie transforms from a defiant individualist with a strong allegiance to her French nationality into a hard-edged bohemian who spends her nights in Seoul’s underground rave scene, into a chicly dressed professional in a stable long-term relationship. Each scene does no more and no less than offer snapshots of Freddie’s coming of age, a process we can be confident will continue for the rest of her life. When the film ends, she is still remaking her identity, this time traveling through an unknown place. Chou offers a last scene that luxuriates in Freddie’s life in the present, as she sits down on a piano bench and sight-reads her way through a score. To the extent that Freddie’s story is an adoption narrative, it is one that is radically open. Liberated from the obligation to provide reassurance that everybody belongs, Return to Seoul revels in the possibilities of perpetual drift. Freddie’s relationships with her birth parents, her adoptive parents, and herself remain in flux. She persists as a spiritual and literal nomad in the world, if never fully belonging then always thoroughly free.