On »Past Lives« and »Return to Seoul«

I disliked a moment in Past Lives, a well-done movie with great actors that is a quite entertaining piece of media, so much that it ruined the entire film for me: There is a scene in which the protagonist explains the function that another character plays; in which she directly says out loud what he represents to her and in the story. This happens halfway through a movie that examines its protagonist’s central conflict in a painstakingly precise way, and thus communicates thoroughly what everything and everyone else means to her, by which I mean to an attentive audience that doesn’t need her to say anything out loud.

There is a metaphor being used by Return to Seoul that I take issue with, but in the context of the entire film it doesn’t really explain anything and later on actually returns as a problem, much like the movie itself explores issues rather than resolving them for its protagonist, by which I mean its audience, and it does so in a painstakingly loose way. Return to Seoul is not done as well as Past Lives and the actors are not as good either, but it is the superior movie precisely because it is also not as entertaining as the other film; because it doesn’t say anything out loud.

It’s probably obvious why I am comparing the two because it’s highly reductive to compare the two: Yes, these are movies about two young women who were born in South Korea but for various similar but not identical reasons are alienated from the country’s culture, people, and ultimately themselves. Yes, both movies pay a lot of attention to the passing of time to highlight contextual and personal changes. But Past Lives is more concerned with the question of belonging, of (not) coming to terms with something, and Return to Seoul with the problem of difference, with experiencing it and (not) understanding someone, anyone really. 

To put it differently, the former is about progress and the latter about process. Both movies are interested in personal development, but Past Lives is more of a character study that aims to examine identity, while Return to Seoul strives to explore non-identity. This is the reason why Past Lives is so incredibly well-written, this is why every short bit of dialogue and every scene so perfectly interlocks with everything else in this movie, and this is the reason why Return to Seoul is so meandering, why some things that happen in it seem to serve very little purpose and why some characters’ actions are almost inexplicable.

In this sense, I can’t help but think that what sets them apart is that the former is a US-American and the latter a European production and that all the cultural and commercial basic assumptions these two different cultures have about movies and what they are supposed to provide for their audiences; that what sets them apart is what their makers think constitutes art and what its purpose is. Past Lives sets out to help you identify with its protagonist, Return to Seoul sets out to make you realise that this is not possible. You are supposed to understand Nora’s conflict, supposed to watch Freddie experience hers. This is the reason for and/or the result of why they treat their respective audiences very differently.

A metaphor that Return to Seoul uses throughout the movie to guide you through the protagonist’s process is music, music as something that connects people even if they do not speak the same language. Unlike Nora, Freddie does not speak Korean, which is one of the many reasons why Return to Seoul is so fucking long and occasionally tedious: Almost everything that is being said is being repeated imperfectly in a different language by another character, which evokes the same frustration in its audience that the people who are trying to speak with each other but never really manage to speak to each other have to experience.

Music however, the movie seems to communicate in one scene, serves as a more immediate medium through which emotions can be conveyed than language. I of course disliked that moment, because the notion that music is some kind of universal language that everyone can access and use to speak to someone, anyone really, is idiotic on many levels: Just like the cultural and commercial contexts in which both movies were made inform how and to what end they were made, every piece of music is essentially an expression of a highly specific basic assumption of what constitutes art and what its purpose is. 

In a film dedicated to exploring non-identity, a movie about people not being able to speak with each other, it is frankly really fucking stupid to use a short recording of a piano piece to make the audience understand that, for once, here’s two people finally speaking with each other instead of to each other by not speaking at all. Nevertheless, this didn’t ruin this film for me, because Return to Seoul shatters the illusion it has created for its protagonist and its audience in its very last scene, ending on a shot of Freddie playing the piano, all by herself while we watch her experiencing that. 

This comes after a painful revelation, about progress not having happened, or at least not in a way that is satisfying for her and her identity as well as an audience who, despite being unable to identify with her, would like her conflict to be resolved because that’s what films like Past Lives have trained us to do, how we were conditioned to relate to characters in stories for decades. And it is not clear why she plays the piano, it is not clear which emotions run through her, it is not clear why this is how Return to Seoul ends; as a scene it’s a question mark and not a period. The only thing that’s clear is that music won’t save the day because it can be just as imperfect and useless as language. 

Return to Seoul then is a movie according to which art is constituted not by offering something that is to be understood, which is why it ultimately doesn’t explain things. It is a movie about our inability to (not) understand anything, including art, and how the process of having to acknowledge this is as long as arduous as the film itself, which is why it aims at making us (not) understand precisely that. This is what makes it the superior movie of the two, this is what makes it art instead of just an entertaining piece of media. But maybe that’s also a very European way of looking at it.