French-Cambodian director questions identity in 'Return to Seoul'

Park Ji-min as Freddie in ″Return to Seoul" [AT9FILM]

“Return to Seoul” is film set in Seoul but spoken in English, French and Korean. It is a multinational collaborative production screened at Cannes and Cambodia’s selection for the Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards. It is these things, and much, much more.

The film follows Freddie, a Frenchwoman who was born in Korea and returns to her birthplace on a whim. Throughout her intermittent stay over the course of seven years, she not only carves in a niche for her herself in Korea but also connects — or fails to — with her biological family and many others. It may seem a simple premise, but “Return to Seoul” shines a bright light on what it means to resonate with others, the notion of identity and the Korean family.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Davy Chou, the French-Cambodian director of “Return to Seoul,” on Dec. 15 for a conversation on the many themes of the film, the process of telling Freddie’s story and casting veteran Korean actors like Oh Kwang-rok and Kim Sun-young along with an ensemble of new talent.

“Return to Seoul” opens in theaters across Europe in January, North America in February and in Korea during the first half of 2023.

The following are edited excerpts of the interview.

Director Davy Chou [AT9FILM]

Q. “Return to Seoul” is based on the experiences of a friend of yours, a Korean-born French adoptee. But the themes of the film apply to a larger part of modern Korea and Asia, with the mix of languages and being lost in translation, the chasm between the older and younger generation and between natives and foreigners, the historical context of war and development and the question of belonging and identity. How large did you intend the scope of the film to be and what other inspirations contributed to the film?

A. Teachings from my own life were another inspiration, and I didn’t initially start with larger themes for the film. The universality of the story came through during the course of making “Return to Seoul.”

My personal experience of life has taught me that you need to start with your intuition. One thing grabs your interest initially and you don’t see wider than that at first. A strong appeal and strong call for something resonates with you and you follow that intuition through. That’s what happened with “Return to Seoul.” As I started meeting a lot of Korean adoptees and learning about Korean culture the wider themes of multiculturalism, modern Asian society and family started to emerge.

I also had some reservations and self-doubt because I myself am not Korean, not a woman, and not an adoptee. But from my own experience of living in two places — Cambodia and France — I understood what film I wanted to make.

The film sometimes humorously and sometimes critically observes the idiosyncrasies of Seoul and the way Koreans interact in social settings, both in the eyes of a foreigner and from the viewpoint of someone who has adapted to that lifestyle. It must have taken a lot of research to achieve this. Did you spend a lot of time in Seoul yourself, or consult with many Koreans and those who have lived in Korea?

I talked to a lot of people in Korea and my first thought was whether this story would be interesting, appealing, to the Korean audience.

I had the first feeling that it would be very challenging. People in the Korean film industry told me that it is a very interesting story but the Korean audience may not be so excited about another film about adoption. The story of international adoption in Korea is extremely well known. People feel that they have seen it already. But as I was researching for the film and going through the process of casting, I talked to many Koreans and found that the younger generation is actually very interested and intrigued about what the film has to say.

Park Ji-min's Freddie navigates Seoul after returning to her birthplace on a whim. [AT9FILM]

One striking characteristic of “Return to Seoul” is that it is very aware of many contexts in which people behave. The movie doesn’t just paint caricatures but implies backstories and alludes to many different aspects of Korea. How important do you think history and social themes in fictional stories are what was the process of studying such histories from the viewpoint of a foreigner?

The historical, political and social elements that can lead to a situation are important in drawing a story, and a balance between those themes and fiction, between information and emotion, was important. It’s a very tricky balance. I tried to put enough information into the film so that the audience would understand there is a context to the story but that it wouldn’t seem to be a documentary.

And I also didn’t want to be judgmental about Korea or the other elements we touch upon, from the viewpoint of a foreigner. So I studied by watching hundreds of Korean films and television and tried to strike that unique balance.

Nearly all of the characters in the film are complex and the audience seems to react differently to each of them, for example Freddie’s biological father, who Freddie has a turbulent relationship with after meeting, her boyfriends, and her adoptive mother. How have audiences reacted?

It is truly fascinating, how differently people react to the characters. Taking Freddie’s father for example, some responded in a way that he was too aggressive and was at fault, while others understand him so deeply and are sympathetic. It was the same with all the other characters. Nobody is purely lovable and nobody is purely hateable. So it is up to people to define and challenge themselves on their own judgment through these characters.

Park Ji-min who plays Freddie had not acted before “Return to Seoul” and you found her and collaborated with her by chance. In your previous work you have also gathered an ensemble of first-time actors. How do you look for that kind of raw talent in actors when there is no reference point? And how did you come about to cast well-known Korean actors such as Oh Kwang-rok and Kim Sun-young?

Intuition is again an important tool. I looked at the faces of the people I wanted to cast, I would see their art or writing and I talked to them in one-on-one conversations. That’s how we cast Ji-min for Freddie and Han Guka for Tena, the friend and guesthouse employee that Freddie meets. For Oh and Kim, Oh was my first choice and he has amazing expressions with his eyes. Kim came in a week before shooting because she was so busy and I didn’t think she would be coming, but she blew us away.

The actor we found for the role of Tena’s friend who speaks French, Son Seung-beom, was also phenomenal. I found him through watching a big Korean blockbuster — “Steel Rain 2: Summit” — and he didn’t speak a word of French but he said his lines phonetically. I think he is one of the most amazing actors I have ever met.

Park Ji-min as Freddie at a bar with Korean friends and acquaintances. [AT9FILM]

There is a scene where Freddie says, “I'm French,” and Tena says, “But you're also part Korean.” Identity as tied to countries or locations is so old and outdated, yet we still identify very much with the question of home. ‘Where are you from?’ is the first thing asked when meeting people.

It is an old fashioned idea and it’s crazy how much that is outdated, but at the same time, it is in our software so to speak, to talk about that. I think people need to grab onto something solid. It also has to do with forming personal identities that will not be shaken. Films about identity are not very common, surprisingly.

One of the central questions of the film seems to be: ‘Can people from different backgrounds and those who have led lives oceans apart understand each other and belong together?’ Again it applies to Freddie and her father and also to her other encounters. What did you intend to portray through Freddie's relationships?

Through Freddie and her father, I wanted to portray how these two faces, that look so similar, meet, but the two will always have a kind of inevitable and indestructible difference and gap between them, despite all the desire to reduce that distance. Even on a wider level of cultural differences I think at the end of the day the question is ‘How can we connect?’ and whether that is impossible. And I think people want to watch a movie to be healed and to see easy reconciliations. But the film refuses a simple narrative, and the question of what we were trying to portray — ‘What does it mean to be happy?’ — is never easy. It’s a continuous search. And our story offers many different possibilities.