The list of countries that took part in producing Return to Seoul, director Davy Chou’s third feature-length film, is a lengthy one. After all, it’s set in South Korea and Romania, led by a director from France and Cambodia, and supported by a cast and crew hailing from different parts of Europe and Asia. It’s hard to pinpoint the film’s exact geographical origins, but it’s this complexity that brings it to life.
In Return to Seoul, Chou explores what he calls a “multiplicity of identities” through the lens of Freddie (Park Ji-min), a 25-year-old French adoptee who visits her home country South Korea for the first time. From there, she embarks on a journey of startling resistance; amidst a pressurizing swirl of expectations, she sets out to create (and constantly re-create) an identity of her own.
In our interview with Chou, the director shares his personal ties to the film, the intense workshops that led to Freddie’s characterization, and the many movies that inspired his own.
This interview has been edited for publication.
Projektor: Return to Seoul is not your typical adoption movie where, after finding one’s biological parents, the adoptee lives happily ever after with them. It’s actually the opposite of that. How did you find yourself in this position, telling this story where you’re subverting that common ending?
Davy Chou: I went to South Korea for the first time to promote my film Golden Slumbers in 2011, and when my friend Laure Badufle [from France] heard that, she went up to me and said, “I took one week off work and I’m going with you. I want to show you my country.” I was shocked to hear her say “my country” because in all the time that I knew her, she never brought that up, even though, as it turns out, she was born there. I myself would never talk about Cambodia, the country where my parents were born, because I didn’t know anything about it. So, she invited me to meet with her biological father and I embarked on that unexpected journey.
When you watch movies about people returning to their origin country, everything feels so predictable, whereas reality is sometimes so surprising. When I was witnessing this encounter between Laure and her biological family, it was nothing like you’d expect from a movie. There were no tears or catching up. Instead, the moment was very dry; full of silences and heavy with things you want to say but can’t. It was impossible to truly open yourself.
The mistranslation going on was quite funny as well. My friend had anger, that very French anger, but the translator transformed her feelings into polite Korean sentences that I’ll never know the actual meaning of. So, yes, Laure inspired the character of Freddie. The idea of making the film different than what we expected came from an experience that itself was so different than what I expected.
I heard that Park Ji-min, who plays Freddie, almost didn’t play the part because she initially had reservations about the character, which you then addressed in rewrites. If I may ask, what sort of changes were made to Freddie?
If you read the original script, the character is still basically the same. She was already unpredictable, impulsive, and unapologetic. And I found all that in Ji-min, but she also had this extra thing that she offered to the film. She had a big say in Freddie’s relationship with clothes and men.
Like, in the middle half of the film when we see her settle in Seoul, originally Freddie was written as a sexy femme fatale in a miniskirt and everything. When Ji-min read that, she said, “No way am I dressing like that. That’s a classic cliché of the Asian woman seen by the male gaze.” And it’s true, not just from a Western perspective but in Asian cinema as well. I’m a big fan of Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, but even in their work, you’ll see that sort of representation.
So I said, “Okay, let’s reshape Freddie.” With the help of our costume designer Claire Dubien, we dressed her up as a warrior because, at this point, she’s a Korean woman thriving in this new country, without the help of anyone else. We were inspired by Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Trinity in The Matrix, and Lis Salander in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
As for the male characters, some of them, specifically André (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) and Maxime (Yoann Zimmer), had intentionally sexist foundations. I wrote them that way because I wanted to play with how Freddie would react. But Ji-min felt that Freddie wouldn’t accept that behavior, so we debated over that. I understood her point and made the changes eventually. These are just small details, but they made a big difference in the end.
As a director, how do you know when to defend an idea and when to compromise?
That’s a very good point. That would take some time to answer with clarity, but I’ll say this.
At one point during the crisis, when things were starting to feel a bit tense, I had to step back and just listen to what Ji-min and Han Guka (who plays Tena in the film) had to say about their characters. When I sought advice, my friends would say, “You can’t lose control of the film!” It was a painful process, of course, but I didn’t think I was losing control for several reasons.
For one, I trusted Ji-min and Guka deeply; I knew they were acting not out of self-interest but out of interest for the film. And in the end, making a film is a collective effort. Plus, I really respect actors who defend their characters. I think that tension is where creation comes from.
So ultimately, it’s not about compromise. It’s about understanding where the film has to go and what it has to be. I wanted to tell a certain story, but at some point, it finds a life of its own. You need to listen to that and give way, and that’s what happened in this case.
So both Laure and Ji-min inspired the creation of Freddie, but how much of Freddie was inspired by your experience?
When I was first writing the film, I found myself in a crisis of legitimacy. I asked myself, “Why do I want to make this film? I’m not Korean. I’m not an adoptee. I’m not a woman. Why does it have to be me? Do I have good reasons to make this film?” I didn’t know until the film was just about done. Sometimes, that’s when you’ll find the real connection which was previously hidden even to yourself.
And that connection was arriving in Cambodia for the first time. Like Freddie, I visited with naivete, with no expectations of what my life was to be. I didn’t know that I’d meet life-long friends and organize workshops there. Now I have a production company based in Cambodia.
So, it was more about the common ground we had based on our individual experiences. When the film was shown around the world, I received the same response from audiences. That state of confusion and being out of place, of not knowing home, those are universal feelings.
When the film was shown around the world, I received the same response from audiences. That state of confusion and being out of place, of not knowing home, those are universal feelings.
Before “Return to Seoul,” the movie was titled “All The People I’ll Never Be.” What does that title say about the story?
I think it’s something people think about when they go to the country they should’ve grown up in. That’s how I felt when I first visited Cambodia. If the genocide didn’t happen, then I should’ve been born there. That was my destiny, but now I’m here. When you’re there, you see faces that kind of look like you, but culturally are so different that you’ll never know what it’s like to be them. I think that’s what Freddie feels too. There is this pressure to conform to a single identity, but she resists labels and reinvents herself constantly. I found that fascinating, the multiplicity of identities and the infiniteness of transformation.
I try to show that in the opening scene of the film, in the guesthouse, where Freddie is obsessively looking at Tena’s face. I mirror them by using the exact same framing; two similar faces shot in a symmetric way, shot-reverse-shot. That reveals both the alternatives and the distance between these two people.
At least the title lives on in the film’s official soundtrack. One of the songs has the same title, no?
The title came from the song, actually. It was composed by one of the film’s two musicians [Christophe Musset], and there is a lyric saying, “All the people you’ll never be.” I found it so poetic.
The entire soundtrack is so strong. It feels as if it’s in constant motion, like Freddie herself, who’s always one step ahead of everyone else.
I wanted the music to be an ally for Freddie, something she finds refuge in. So that explains the dancing during those pressurized moments. That’s her way of blocking out the hostility of people and questions surrounding her. Playing her own music and dancing to it is one way of carving out a space and time and world of her own; at least during those two minutes, she has a place she can call home.
It’s not a coincidence the film ends with Freddie playing her own piano piece; she’s alone but fully emancipated, so she feels free enough to do that.
I mean, I love Hong Sang-soo. I can’t not think about Hong Sang-soo, that was an easy trap. But Lee Chang-dong was a great influence as well, and so was Nadav Lapid, whose film Synonyms guided me in establishing the character’s freedom and resistance. Same with Maren Ade and her film Toni Erdmann. In terms of style, we were inspired by David Fincher and Hou Hsiao-hsien, and a lot of The Wachowskis’ black and gray ambiance in The Matrix.
I could quote so many other influences: at some point, we were also looking at Romanian movies. With this film dealing with so many identities and cultures, I just wanted to play with different sources and mix them all up. This was the result of the chemical operation, and I had a lot of fun doing that.
Return to Seoul premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and will be released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on February 17, 2023.
Header image: Thibault Perrier/Davy Chou