I was as delighted as I was surprised when I saw that the London Korean Film Festival had selected The Return for its closing gala screening. The huge numbers of overseas adoptions from Korea is often a sidelined subject and understandably wouldn’t be a natural choice when showcasing Korean culture and arts. But the 2018 LKFF certainly hasn’t shied away from difficult subject matter in this years selections and I applaud its choices.
The Return, directed by Malene Choi, a Danish Korean adoptee, follows the journey of Karoline, also an adoptee, on her first trip back to Korea. Choi, known for her documentary works, merges reality and fiction in a truly authentic depiction of the complicated experiences that adoptees can face when returning to their birth country.
As an adoptee myself, I found the portrayal of Karoline’s journey was incredibly accurate and relatable. Small, potentially missable moments struck a chord with me, such as Karoline’s glances at a mother and young daughter preparing a meal together. Much of returning to Korea isn’t the life-affirming experience of rediscovery that friends and family often believe we will enjoy, but instead can be an incredibly difficult process of trying to reconnect with something intangible, unobtainable and often painful. Even the reunion with the birth family isn’t necessarily the happy ending we dream of.
A return to Korea for adoptees can often feel like a regressive state. A return to childhood feeling lost, bewildered, frustrated and unable to communicate. Karoline embodies this. We can imagine that she is a successful independent woman back in Denmark but in this new place she is supposed to have some connection with she appears vulnerable and subdued.
For many adoptees, the closest connections we find when trying to claim back our lost past are those we find with other adoptees, and Karoline’s friendship with Thomas (also played by an adoptee) illustrates the unusually deep and fast bonding we can experience with each other when trying to navigate the bizarre roller coaster of culture shock and emotions. Karoline and Thomas, who are practically strangers, support each other almost silently through incredibly intense and deeply personal moments, whilst separately and more privately attempting to mask their feelings with hedonistic bouts of despair.
Karoline’s trip is filled with so many awkward, uncomfortable moments contrasting with just a few desperate attempts to take some kind of enjoyment from the experience. After a particularly poignant scene, Thomas and Karoline are seen attempting to be ‘tourists’ to take the weight out of the situation, but it still feels like the two are only going through the motions as their heads are evidently still elsewhere.
Symbolism features strongly, and helps to carry the narrative which uses only limited dialogue. An initial scene shows Karoline hauling her heavy suitcase up the steep path to her guesthouse at a gruellingly slow pace, and the final scene shows Karoline wading out into the deep mud of the island she believes she was from, both easily linkable to her psychological states. I particularly liked the use of the electronic soundscape giving a flavour of hyper modern Seoul, and mixed with the out-of-sequence visuals created a sense confusion and disorientation.
I enjoyed The Return because so much of it was personally relatable, but I wonder who its wider audience will be? Its style falls more towards documentary and is a heavy watch with only a few lighter moments, but I would certainly hope there are opportunities for future screenings in Korea where change is urgently required in the understanding and aftercare of returning adoptees.
The Return (Dir Malene Choi, 2018) screened on 14 November as the closing gala of the London Korean Film Festival 2018