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Outside the Frame: Davy Chou on ‘Return to Seoul’

‘Return to Seoul’ director Davy Chou talks about creating a protagonist who won’t be labelled and who is always leaving

Park Ji-min in 'Return to Seoul'
Park Ji-min in 'Return to Seoul'

From the moment we see Freddie, eyes shining, impossible to read before she has even said a word, she occupies the centre of Return To Seoul. But what an unstable centre it is, and what a mercurial performance by Park Ji-min, always on the move, keeping the world at arm’s length.

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In 2011, French-Cambodian director Davy Chou accompanied his friend Laure Badufle, a French woman, on a trip to meet her biological Korean father. Many years later, this visit inspired Return To Seoul, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and is now streaming on MUBI. It’s an intimate, neon-hued film about a young French woman who seeks out the Korean family that gave her up for adoption at a young age. The film catches up with Freddie after intervals of time as her attitudes to life, relationships, Korea and her birth parents undergo subtle changes.

Chou directed the documentary Golden Slumbers (2012) and the fiction film Diamond Island (2016), both about Cambodia. We speak to the director about his film’s mercurial star and varied inspirations. Edited excerpts:

The film grew out of a trip your friend made to meet her birth father. 

She invited me to go with her. We met her biological father and grandma. It’s a scene that really stayed with me. I kept thinking about it. When I was looking for a project in 2017, I recalled that moment. I told my friend that I was thinking of making a film about this and she was immediately very enthusiastic. She shared information with me, about her life and her relationship with South Korea. That was the starting point of the film.

Did you have her sign off on the script?

Yeah, but I have to say honestly, there was some kind of apprehension to find the right moment to share it. She was not asking, so I procrastinated. I waited till a final version to show it to her. I think I was afraid she would be disappointed, which is possible when it’s your life. Luckily, she was very positive in her first reading.

Park Ji-min hadn't acted before. Did she take some convincing to step into a part that had resonances with her own life? 

It wasn’t easy. I didn’t want to be pushy because I felt if I was, she will step back. There was a progressive attempt to know each other, talking about the script. I was not so concerned about her not being able to act because she very quickly showed natural skills. 

She was born in Korea and moved to France when she was nine; she calls herself Korean. So it was a bit different from the character. With me, for example, I talk for one minute and you can see I didn’t grow up in Asia. I didn’t want people to watch the film and say, she didn’t grow up in France. I was worried that Ji-min looks too Korean. But she trusted that she could slip into character and work on the little details. 

There’s a fascinating scene at a bar. She takes control and starts bringing strangers together at one table. 

There are different ways of interpreting that. I wanted to show that she does have a social force, this charisma. She feels pressurised by her friends telling her what she should do, which she hates. She needs to counter. The idea of control is very important because she never had it in the first part of her life, being sent to another country. 

There’s also a question of territory. She’s coming for the first time to a place that maybe seems hostile because it rejected her. So she takes control of the territory by deciding who will sit where. She remakes the map of the restaurant. That might seem small but she has this survival instinct of remapping. 

There are metaphoric layers as well. She’s arriving as French girl, very sure of herself. French tourists in countries like these—sorry for the generalisation, which I will make only because I am French—sometimes have this neocolonial behaviour of thinking everything belongs to them. So there’s a layer of Freddie having this French arrogance. 

Even before that, she doesn’t allow her friends to pour her drinks: another way of saying I am not Korean.

Yes, certainly. Anyone going to Korea has this experience of being explained who will pour. Her not doing it is like, woah. 

I know Freddie is not an easy character. But at the end of the film, whether you like or hate her, I hope viewers understand where this anger comes from. 

As someone who was left early on in life, it seems important to her as a grown-up to be able to leave, whether it’s cities, conversations, relationships…even the film frame.

Two things to say on that. When you say she wants to be able to leave anytime—that’s correct. The film that changed my life when I was 12 was Heat (1995) by Michael Mann. I watched it maybe 100 times. Neil McCauley’s philosophy of life is, whatever happens, you need to be able to leave. Like Neil McCauley, Freddie is lonely but her survival instinct is telling her this the only thing she can do.

On what you said about her leaving the frame: The idea is, Freddie absolutely refuses to be labelled. Everyone tries to put identities and definitions on her—her family, her new family, her friends. So my idea was this rebellious spirit of hers will try to not be framed by the camera. I got inspired by a few films that have this kind of meta aspect. One was Carlito’s Way (1993) by Brian De Palma. Carlito is a dancer, in one-two moves he’s always out and the editing and the camera need to reframe him. 

The most illustrative scene in my film is the dancing scene. There was no choreography. Ji-min could do whatever she wanted. And we were there with the camera, trying to catch her. 

That scene reminded me of the dances in Philippe Garrel films, which seem to have no centre.

The dance scene in Regular Lovers (2005) is one of my favourites. I don’t think I followed it (in Return To Seoul) but the films that you love are here with you. 

Ji-Min has an unpredictable quality as an actor, which feeds into the character’s impulsiveness.

It’s a strange coincidence, which I would call a miracle, that the one actress I wanted to play the character, who retrospectively feels like the only one who could play her, had this kind of unpredictability herself. She was always challenging me. When you are young and making films, you have a lot of people telling you, that’s the way we do things. Sometimes you just accept it. But she had no reason to accept it because she was not an actress, she didn’t expect to be acting after this. 

(Director) Claire Denis saw the film and said what impressed her most was she could see the actress resisting the film. Which is what happened—although Ji-min had a great relationship and are best friends today. I wasn’t so aware of this on set because you want to be in control as a director. But I see the traces of that struggle in the film, and that’s very special.

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