Far off in the rural outskirts of Ulsan, there's a simple country restaurant called "The Return" with a plaque that reads, if you drink rice wine here, your loved one will return for you. There is no magical property to the plaque or the restaurant. The proprietor Mister Byeon (played by Kim Yu-seok) just liked the sentiment in those words. But through time and tide, various lonely people have come to "The Return" inspired by its message into believing that they, too, may meet their loved ones again, given enough patience at the restaurant.
It helps that "The Return" is an obscure enough location that the only people who have heard of it are locals. So just by manner of simple geography, a sufficiently lonely person is likely to meet the person they want back eventually, if both of them are lonely enough to go hanging around there. In that way "The Return" is a self-fulfilling prophecy- the rare good one in fiction, which usually uses that particular plot device to emphasize the meaningless inherent in trying to fight fate.
In the philosophical world of "The Return" there is no such thing as fate, only belief. This is best emphasized through Mister Byeon's relationship with Joo-yeong (played by Son Soo-hyeon), a woman who does not explain her motivation for coming to "The Return" or how she knew about it. Joo-yeong keeps pestering Mister Byeon into letting her help with the business- which practically speaking caters more to hikers than it does people who sincerely take the plaque's teachings to heart. Mister Byeon resists out of inertia. That's just how he's supposed to run the shop, after all.
But again, "The Return" did not spring from a grand tradition of magical shopkeepers. Mister Byeon is only a mere mortal like everyone else, and he knows it. Observe how he maintains the broken mirror, a constant reminder of his own humility, just because. Mister Byeon hides his own sad backstory the same way all the other characters do. Joo-yeong is just the first person to ever try and get him to talk about it- once again, for her own mysterious but well-meaning purposes.
The sentiment there is quite unifying. Indeed, even as all the regulars at the titular restaurant have wildly differing personalities and don't even particularly like each other that much, their very presence at the restaurant is a constant reminder that loneliness and regret are essential aspects to the human condition shared by almost everyone. When one character shows up and attacks the premise, she is attacking the very idea of hope.
And really, any hope, however implausible, is superior to the constant despair of cynicism. "The Return" lacks any standout qualities. Beautiful countryside cinematography notwithstanding this is a movie that lives and dies on the power of its themes. This is a movie about belief in the existance of a love so strong it will always come back, one way or another. If that sounds unbearably corny, then "The Return" is not for you.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Return""
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