Director Davy Chou’s latest film, “Return to Seoul,” follows Freddie, a rebellious French adoptee who impulsively makes a trip to her birthplace of Seoul, Korea, to reconnect with her birth parents. With crisp cinematography and tactful dialogue, Chou tells a thoughtful story about curiosity, culture and identity. But, as the director explained in an interview with the Daily Californian, it isn’t his.
“It actually came from a friend of mine, very close to me. We studied together. She happened to be with me when I was going to South Korea back in 2011,” Chou said. “After a few days being there, on the contrary of what she had promised to herself before going, she told me that she texted her biological Korean father that she would meet him the day after. She asked me if I would like to come with her. And I said yes.”
Ethnically Cambodian but born in France, Chou is also at the crossroads of two different cultures. But his perspective wasn’t enough on its own to imbue the film with authenticity and emotional integrity.
“In 2017, I talked to my friend and confessed to her this desire. She was very enthusiastic and opened her life to me by sending me notes and documents. She was compiling pieces about her experiences of Korea through the years, and that became the base of the film,” Chou recalled.
Despite playing an integral role in the genesis of “Return to Seoul,” Chou’s friend was not physically present on set while shooting. The director and lead actress Ji-Min Park, who plays Freddie in the film, pondered the notion of shooting alongside Chou’s friend. Ultimately, Park made the creative decision to hold off on meeting her double until filming had commenced.
“I think she felt a bit intimidated. Ji-Min wasn’t a professional actress at the time. She was doing things by instinct,” said Chou. “For me, when making the film, I did watch some films about adoption. But the most famous films that I believe are good, I didn’t watch. It’s classical. You don’t want to be too influenced and you want to find your own way.”
One might expect that distance between an actor and a person with real, lived experiences would hinder the film’s potential to uncover truth. But according to Chou, this wasn’t the case for “Return to Seoul.”
“I gave (my friend) the choice of watching the film online, but she said ‘No, I will go to Cannes and watch it there.’ So, she went and watched it in front of a thousand people, which I know was a traumatic experience for her — to see an alter ego of herself,” Chou noted. “Not everything in the film is accurate, but a lot of details are. So yeah, it was a bit strange for her on that day.”
Audience reactions to “Return to Seoul” have been equally complex. The film has had early screenings in France, Korea, the U.S. and more; apparently, each country’s take on the provocative protagonist is different than the last.
“I was so surprised that when I read about the film in France, a lot of the debate was about the fact that the character Freddie was antipathetic and too harsh. I know that she can be brutal, and I knew from the script that some people would (feel this way), but it was interesting to see the difference in terms of reception,” Chou said. He went on to explain Koreans’ interpretations of the film.
“They were saying two things. They were saying that the character Freddie is really unusual in Korean cinema — that (they) don’t have anyone like her,” Chou said. “But the younger audience really related to her a lot. They’d say that she’s inspiring — that we can see people like her in real life but not on-screen. It was liberating and interesting.”
With her snarky attitude and unconventional upbringing, Freddie’s character is unique in more ways than one. But for anyone who has experienced the existential confusion of inhabiting multiple cultural identities, hers is one of the more relatable stories out there. Toward the end of the interview, Chou described his cinematic techniques for depicting a character who searches for self-discovery in the faces of others.
“The cut between the shot and reverse shot is saying a lot about the impossible connection between these two faces, or the impossible act of being close,” Chou said. “I was thinking about this ‘confrontation of close ups.’ Like the philosopher Levinas said, all humanities are in one face. You look at one face, and suddenly all the humanities exude from it.”