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“I Made the Film Out of an Intuition”: Davy Chou on Return to Seoul

A woman sits on the floor of her apartment eating out of a bowl.Ji-Min Park in Return to Seoul.

Freddie (Park Ji-min) doesn’t get what she wants, but it’s not quite clear what it is she does want. She’s in Seoul for the first time as an adult, a child of transnational adoption, someone who’s culturally French and trying to find something that feels indescribably correct about her sense of self, place, and time. That’s barely easily said, never mind done. She lashes out, she broods, she pulls in and pushes away new connections without consideration of the consequences. She’s adrift in a place that should be, by everyone else’s accounts, her homeland. Yet she remains unmoored, the camera sometimes barely able to keep up with her despite the roiling stillness of the scenarios. 

If many filmmakers like to treat the adoption narrative as a carnival game of phoned in catharsis and sentimentality, frequently fulfilling the naive and often erroneous idea that all answers of selfhood are found for children of adoption seeking their biological families, Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul is a rebellious, anarchic (in its way) middle finger to those cliches. A riposte to schmaltzy adoption movies like Lion or The Blind Side, Freddie resists and rebukes categorization as a good adoptee, and instead roves around Return to Seoul over the course of several years donning various identities, adrift, unsure and ambivalent. 

I spoke to Chou about Return to Seoul in advance of its wider theatrical opening on February 17 from Sony Pictures Classics

Filmmaker: Has your relationship to your own sense of rootedness, and your relationship to place, changed at all since you began this journey of making the film?

Chou: I have something in common with the trajectory of Freddie, even though I’m not an adoptee, I’m not Korean and I’m not a woman. But I was born in France to Cambodian parents, who left their home pretty young in 1973, when they were 16 and 17 years old. Because of the Khmer Rouge genocide that was happening two years after they arrived in France, and the revelation of us losing all of our family in Cambodia, they had no other choice but to stay, and to consider that there is where their future would be. 

I decided to go to Cambodia for the first time in my life when I was 25, with a similar kind of free spirit that I would say is naive. I felt solid in my identity; when people would ask me, I’d say “I’m French.” People my age who were born in Cambodia would say, “Are you sure?” And I would say, “Yeah, of course.” I was just repeating like a parrot, “I believe in an ideology of integration and French universalism. My culture is French; I believe in the French philosophers.”  [I began] to understand that this feeling of self-assurance was a construction. Not that I was not French, but things are maybe more complex than that and [constantly] evolving in your mind and sense [of self]. The place where you decide at one point to spend time also shapes you. It’s been 13 years now since that first trip. 

I made the film out of an intuition, like Freddie actually. If you are reflecting too much, you will not move. Sometimes you need to move, and later on understand the meaning of that move. That’s maybe how life works. So, in writing the film, I had to reflect on how I would put something very personal about my understanding of the quest of identity [and how it] evolves.

Filmmaker: Was it frightening or challenging to be vulnerable by channeling that part of yourself through another character? 

Chou: Sure, it is always frightening. Every process of creation is when it starts to be a bit slow and you suddenly get conscious of it. Autobiography and autofiction are everywhere. Especially for this kind of thing, you need to write the ending. I was fighting by the end, drafting so many different endings, because it had to be right. It’s a form of understanding that we can call a form of peace despite the tragedy of what’s happening just before.

Filmmaker: I really love the ending, and I think it’s a really significant contribution to the canon of adoption narratives in film. A lot of those movies tend to provide easy sentimentality. Return to Seoul is really beautiful in how it challenges those cliches. What kind of research did you do as far as other stories of adoption and engaging with how you want to approach those ideas?

Chou: Well, it was really in the root of the project to give a counter-narrative to the typical story of adoption that will extend to the typical journey to [one’s] roots, with that ideology that you find all the time in nearly every single film. The very first [piece of] proof that things are not always like that was coming from the main source of the story, my friend. We discussed what happened when she met her biological father, and she was saying it was so different from that cliche narrative. I watched so many documentaries, and even [when it’s] told from the point of view of the adoptee, it feels so fake. I understand how we still want to hold this kind of cliche, because it’s reassuring. That illusion makes us feel peace. I’m afraid it’s a veil of illusion. And then, you will feel it cracking and discover that you have nothing. So I could feel her pain, I could feel her frustration of not feeling herself recognizing these kinds of stories. 

By following a character, Freddie, that constantly refuses this narrative [box]—because that’s what freedom is—the film becomes unpredictable. Because the character is always refusing to enter into any box that would have been leveled already for her. The fact that she is always escaping and confronting the same kind of action is so dynamic and interesting in terms of fiction. For me, it was very exciting to prove such characters [could exist] because I believe that at the end, following her might bring us to touch a certain truth about [ourselves], and that’s what I think cinema can be great for.

Filmmaker: It’s interesting that Freddie seems to be getting away from the camera, yet is being tracked by it. I was wondering how you want to establish her relationship to the camera in the film. 

Chou: It’s totally something that we built into the film, the dance between the camera and the actress. That reflects the dynamic of the character, her constant refusal to be labeled. I decided not to use [over the] shoulder camera. I thought it would be a bit too tautological for filming an agitated character. On the contrary, [we filmed] still shots on her face, but also larger shots with a lot of people. The best example is when she is first meeting her biological family at dinner; there are seven people around the table and it’s like she’s surrounded by people, but it’s only still shots. Then suddenly you can feel [the agitation] because, 20 minutes before, you got to know the fire inside of her and now you can read in her eyes. Even though she doesn’t move, she looks clearly petrified, but something is boiling in her. And I found the tension between [the] stillness of the shots and [the] politeness of the setting reflects a relationship in a traditional Korean family and the boiling fire inside her. 

When she feels pressured by people, she starts to become her own filmmaker: transforming other people in the room into extra actors and secondary roles, deciding places and remapping, like at the bar in the beginning. It’s interesting, because it’s someone in the new territory. She’s remapping the restaurant, deciding which people are going to sit and everything like that. She’s not in control in a place that she doesn’t know anything about, so here’s an attempt at taking control. Interestingly, the way of taking control is to create chaos. I was very inspired by Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms and Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way for that chaos.

Another scene that’s interesting is the scene where Freddie dances and I’m on the track. I can do this camera movement, the camera can pan a bit and I myself can do the zoom. But then at the same time, I don’t control what she’s actually doing, she’s doing whatever she wants. It becomes this struggle between the two of us.

Filmmaker: Your film has a really interesting relationship to music, in addition to choreography. You have the beginning club scene where it’s on that track and you’re watching Freddie dance. Then you have the other underground clubs and singing at her birthday, which is even more pumped up and fantastical in a way, and even more chaotic. Then you have the last moment where she’s at the piano and she’s completely alone. 

Chou: There is an evolution where I play with the cultural identity of the music, as well. At the beginning, you will hear a lot of old vintage Korean songs that symbolize a past Freddie can feel from the texture of the song. You can feel it comes from the ’70s, but because she doesn’t speak the language, it already embodies a contradiction of knowing it’s from the past, but also having no idea what it is. It’s your past that you don’t know. I felt that the first time I went to Cambodia and listened to old Cambodian music. 

In the second part, much more of the music is as if she had emancipated herself from her past and decided in some kind of extreme, positive gesture to say, “Hey, you reject me from Korea. I assure you I can be Korean, but I’m not having any link with my family whatsoever. I killed your heritage and now I’m a Korean girl with a Korean boyfriend, a drug fiend and everything.” So the music is very contemporary German techno music, also contemporary Korean electronic music that was composed for the film and shows her state of mind. 

The third part is more silence, as if she needed less music. Because music for many is some kind of refuge, for her it is some kind of place that she can jump into and find comfort in when she feels too much pressure. And that’s basically the dancing scene in the first act, when the music is suddenly put on and she dances and there are no other characters in that shot. She dances as if she was inventing her own space, time and temporality. In the last part, there is less music, as if maybe she was ready to listen. 

Filmmaker: As opposed to escaping.

Chou: The music becomes not only a refuge, but also a place to express feelings and sentiments when language doesn’t allow you to do it. At the very end, as you say, I think that it is something different. She is ready to be active. This journey may be full of loneliness—being totally alone with herself—so that she can start to feel it’s time to play her own melody. 

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