I was able to view Return to Seoul at my local theater this week and as I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been curious about how it would look and feel compared to 2018’s film, The Return, which has a similar storyline about a European Korean adoptee who visits Korea and the emotional repercussions of the trip (I wrote about The Return for the International Examiner and interviewed the lead actor, Danish Korean adoptee Karoline Sofie Lee).
Return to Seoul had similar themes as several other documentaries and fictional films focused on adoption including unprepared and wide-eyed adoptee protagonists naive about the emotionality of a first-time trip to the birth country, grief-stricken Korean birth families who have unrealistic expectations about making up for lost time, mistranslations and communications, and awkward interactions with adoption agency social workers. This film (like The Return) was informed by semi-biographical elements but as a feature film, leaves out some of what I now recognize as conventions of the classic adoptee search-and-reunion narrative. In Return to Seoul we don’t get any insights into the main character’s motivations or thoughts, and there aren’t any voice-over explanations.
We see the impact of transnational and transracial adoption through the eyes of Freddie, a French Korean adoptee. We watch an adoptee who is angry, confused, lonely, and destructive lash out and emotionally abuse others. I know adoptees who are like this – who externalize their feelings; I also know many adoptees who are much more internal. We follow Freddie over a period of 8 years which provides a longitudinal view of her identity development. At 25, she accidentally ends up in Korea when her trip to Japan is canceled. We see her back in Korea at 27, at 32, and finally at age 33 (the only time she is not in Korea). We never see her in her adopted country and get a very brief glimpse of her adoptive family or her life in France. Each “return” reveals a different Freddie in terms of her appearance and demeanor but elements of her need for control continue.
There are several aspects in the film Korean adoptees who have not visited Korea since their adoption and/or have not started searching for their Korean first families might have a difficult time understanding. The lead character’s behaviors are extreme. Integrating with locals would likely be more challenging than what is presented in the film; in my experiences in Korea and from my many friends who have traveled it takes a lot of time to make friends with non-adopted Koreans, and I’ve found mostly they don’t really want to interact. Most adoptees certainly do not find their birth families within a 2-week time span, especially if they are unprepared for a search and haven’t already communicated with their agency. The film gets some things right about the process of interacting with adoption agencies and Korean birth families based on my own personal experiences and witnessing or sharing these moments with many friends over the past 20+ years.
Return to Seoul offers zero critiques of the systemic practices of transnational adoption other than the implication that it created an underlying disturbance in Freddie; this pathologization is maybe one of the aspects that made it difficult for me to view as an adoptee. Not that I’m necessarily blaming the film, since the aim of these films is more about the personal journey than the political and social contexts that supported transnational adoption.
I’m still processing the character of Freddie. Adoptees are often portrayed as wild, rebellious, mercurial, and emotionally frozen like Freddie is in this film. I related more with Karoline in The Return, but this is likely because Karoline’s character was more internal and quiet. I thought the portrayal of Karoline and Thomas and their experiences in The Return were more relatable when I compared my own trips to Korea and that of Korean adoptee friends. Either way, losing our families of origin via adoption is a devastating experience and those of us adopted into white majority communities where we stand out have that additional task of surviving in the midst of these personal and cultural losses. If anything, Return to Seoul is a solid example of how transnational adoption shapes and encourages detachment as a survival mechanism and then wonders why the adoptee struggles to make healthy connections.
- The AP is reporting a follow-up to the contested adoption case of an Afghan girl by a US Marine. I linked to a New York Times Magazine article describing the case in a previous Lab Note #2. In a rare decision, the adoption was overturned by a Virginia court. The AP had also investigated this case in October of 2022.
- Many of you will already be aware of this but the New Yorker’s article “Living in Adoption’s Emotional Aftermath” is an exceptional article centering three women – Angela Tucker, Joy Lieberthal Rho, and Deanna Doss Shrodes. I highly recommend this article. It is rare to read such a nuanced and compassionate look at the impact of adoption on adoptees, without manufactured drama and sensationalism.
- An article in El Pais: “International adoptees confront their identity: ‘I’ve ignored my birth culture almost my whole life’” highlights the voices of transnational adoptees in Spain and the consequences of assimilation.
The Administration on Children, Youth, and Families conducted a national study of adoptive families post-adoption and include some data on adoption disruption and dissolution – which is of great interest to me. The National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being Post-Adoption report is now available.