In Return to Seoul, director Davy Chou tells a moving story of fractured identity amidst a constantly changing world. It’s through the eyes of Freddie (Park Ji-Min), a 25-year-old French adoptee who, on a whim, decides to find her biological parents in South Korea. Despite not being fluent in the language and having nothing other than a photograph to aid in her search, Freddie’s journey takes an unexpected route leading her to change swiftly, reminding us life demands constant reinvention as means of survival.

Chou, who was inspired by the story of a real-life friend, creates a genre-defying film that expertly captures what it’s like to live i- between worlds without a sense of belonging to any. Sleekly shot and structured by Chou, and acted beautifully by Park, in her film debut, Return to Seoul premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and was eventually selected as Cambodia’s entry for the Best International Feature Film award at the Oscars, where it made the shortlist. 

As the film opens in US theaters, we spoke to Chou and Park about bringing Freddie’s story to the screen, shooting thought processes, and how David Fincher inspired the film’s mood.

The Film Stage: There are these incredible sequences in the film where Freddie is with her biological father’s family, her friend Tena (Guka Han) and her Aunt (Kim Sun-young) serving as interpreters. They try very hard to soften the blows and avoid hurting people’s feelings. Davy, your camera works as a mediator and mostly stays on everyone, but there is such tension as we wait to know how things will be translated next. How did you set up those scenes?

Davy Chou: What happened in that scene is that we are following a character that is so impulsive. Freddie is acting before thinking, and that’s really the way that she does things. I believe that in life we sometimes can do things without thinking or overthinking too much. If not, we will be paralyzed and petrified. Freddie is moving, and after maybe she realizes what she’s doing, but maybe it’s too late. But anyway, she had to follow and assume the consequences of what she does by destroying everything basically. 

So in that scene she’s going there to meet her father’s family and she doesn’t know what to expect. I think she feels like the one thing that she hates is being pressurized by things––including people, society, and stuff. And suddenly she is pressurized by everybody––she just met her father, but she’s in the middle, surrounded by seven people, and everybody’s looking at her. So I feel she feels very, very, very pressurized. 

Me interpreting her feeling is that she doesn’t have any place because people are talking to her, talking for her, and talking over her. She is surrounded by people talking in a language she doesn’t know, talking as if sometimes she wasn’t here––with the grandma, for example, talking directly to her French translator and the translator talking directly to the grandma. Freddie’s like: what the fuck am I doing here?

I believe in that moment she hoped Tena would be of help, act like a shield of sorts, but she realizes Tena has become the middle person and is trying to smooth things and understand Freddie’s family, which she doesn’t like. In that situation, maybe I as a writer wanted to be a bit generous to the character by having at least someone making a step to her understanding, maybe unconsciously, what she needs. Instead her family members are vomiting their pain and guilt onto her, but no one is asking about her life in France or about her friends, which were consequences of their actions.

The aunt helped me to suddenly have a point where another character is thinking intuitively about the situation and knows sometimes it’s better not to be fully confrontational. I talked to a lot of adoptees who told me they develop better relationships with their aunts and uncles than with their parents.

So now, talking about framing: the way it’s built is all very frontal. We have two axes, which is basically like if the table had two sides: Freddie and Tena, and opposite them the father, the aunt, and the grandma. The angles for me were about force and about Freddie losing control. We changed the angle to show the character who takes control; the grandma, for example, has a lot of force, she’s monologuing, taking over the whole thing. And the force and the dynamic of the scene will be changed by the aunt, so then suddenly the angle changes. I got that from David Fincher in The Social Network, to be fully honest.

I was going to say it’s almost like a thriller. Those silences and those moments, while we were waiting for the translation, made me feel so stressed. 

Chou: I’m very happy to hear that! And then if we go further, the shot of the grandma opening the chicken is maybe her feeling that she’s losing control, and then she needs to invade again the place of Freddie and she even comes into her plate in a very funny way. 

I love the David Fincher reference. When I watched the movie the first time I immediately thought it was kind of like a spiritual sibling to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Chou: The first scenes of the second part when we see Freddie walking with her leather jacket going straight to meet Andre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) at the date and we don’t have any idea of what she’s doing. I play with the suspense of showing her face a bit––that came from Dragon Tattoo.

Ji-Min, Freddie’s journey is incredible. She goes through so much and has an almost decade-long arc. How was it to imagine all those years that happen between the film’s chapters?

Park: The script was really clear about the direction of the character because the story was always already there. As an actress I have to respond to the desire of the filmmaker. We added some construction work to the character––not about the story but about the character and her interaction with the other characters.

It’s still a bit surreal to see the pandemic being mentioned in films, yet we see Freddie wearing a face mask at some point. Obviously the film was shot during the pandemic, but how did COVID-19 shift your perception of time in a film that’s already playing so much with that?

Chou: The pandemic scene was a bit pragmatic, but it’s all due to the math of the film. If you’re really attentive and see the emails in the film you realize the first part is 2013, then we go to 2015, and the last part is in 2020, which is right in the pandemic. Even that would be anachronistic and these characters couldn’t have been there because of lockdown. But anyway, it’s fiction. Right? I asked myself: if the characters should wear masks, what would people think in 10 years?

I have to say I was a bit worried because in South Korea there were strict mask-mandatory rules, and luckily we don’t have a lot of outdoor scenes in the first part of the film. In the second part we do, though, and we had a small budget, so we couldn’t block entire places and stuff. People were very nice to us. In the second part, when Freddie is walking to the tattoo parlor, that was very complicated because the streets were so crowded and we only had 15 extras to play with. So what the first assistant director invented was to block the people with masks; when we were shooting the extra actors had to immediately put themselves in the angle of the camera to block people with masks, so that we wouldn’t see them. That was kind of tricky.

In the third act we have a scene where she finds herself by Seoul Station and there was a lot of people. I wanted real people and they were wearing masks, so clearly we didn’t have the budget to block all of that, so by a pragmatic decision the actors wore masks too. 

Photo by Sean DiSerio.

That explains why the first part has so many scenes in cars as well. Ji-Min, you have a sensational moment in a car where the camera lingers on Freddie and we can see her go through an intense range of emotions without any dialogue. What was it like to watch yourself in scenes like that?

Park: I felt awful from the beginning to the end when I watched it. [Laughs] I watched it once on a computer before Cannes; I saw it on a very big screen at the festival again. To be honest, I only watched it cause Davy and the production people told me it would be quite harsh for me to do interviews not knowing what the movie looked like. They convinced me.

I can talk about the experience while we were shooting this moment, but not when I saw the images because it was just awful. I was like “Oh, my face again.” When we were filming that––it’s bizarre to say this––but I was in possession of Freddie, and Freddie was in possession of me. In that scene, I was thinking about all the history and the past both Freddie’s and mine. As well as all the questions she might have had at that moment. We shot the movie chronologically, so I was very into the character.

Chou: And it’s funny because, in that particular scene, you also have to pretend to understand Korean and you do it very well.

Park: Instinctively, I was like “OK, I am Freddie and Freddie is me.”

Davy, you’ve spoken about how you weren’t the obvious person to tell a story like this because you don’t share any of Freddie’s history, but your work in many ways is about preserving otherwise lost history. Why do you think cinema serves your purpose?

Chou: That’s a big one. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to answer that. I don’t know what cinema can do with this kind of thing. I think that’s what I was trying to do in the film in a more humble way, not like a big mission. I wanted to portray the experiences of people and be true to them, in the process of also trying to dig deep and eventually share that experience with people so that they can be touched by it and they can understand it. Or they can find themselves in it if they recognize themselves. Politically, I don’t believe that the art of cinema can change the world. But sometimes, and at its best, politically, cinema can help you switch the way you look at things, the perspective, and the angle. 

Park: In all forms of art in general. Yeah.

Chou: And in that kind of particular story of adoption, of people who are frustrated by being pressured into defining themselves by one identity, I hope that the film can convey to all the audience to look at these people differently. 

Park: I think the power of all kinds of artists is to convey so many different people, with a different history, with individual history, and to converge all those things in one place, like Davy thinking about this and making it a movie. It goes from his friends who inspired him to then touch people all over the world––that’s the beauty of art. Not even its power––its beauty. Finding a way to communicate with people even if we don’t speak the same language. It’s beautiful.

Return to Seoul is now in limited release and expanding.

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