Cambodian-French writer-director Davy Chou’s third full-length film, Return to Seoul, which premiered in Un Certain Regard at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, focuses on a French Korean adoptee during her recurring trips to South Korea over the span of eight years, from the age of 25 to 33. 

In recent years, films have been analysed through the perspective of identity politics. On the one hand, it can be empowering but, on the other, it threatens to restrict the range of stories that can be told and treats identity itself as an asset, a commodified item that helps generate discourse around a film and bring audiences to theatres. Return to Seoul is anything but that. Instead, it resists any brackets and expectations forced upon the root-searching narratives. 

The film’s story revolves around Freddie, a 25-year-old French Korean woman who was adopted by a French couple when she was a baby. She arrives in her country of birth for the very first time, not sure what exactly brought her there since looking for her biological parents and discovering her origins was not a specific aim. In the hostel where she is staying, she encounters Tena (Han Guka) and Dongwan (Son Seong-Beom), native Koreans who both major in French at school. They introduce Freddie to Seoul and some basics of Korean savoir vivre and customs, some of which she immediately questions and resists because of their inherent gender inequality. 

According to identity politics, Freddie’s ethnicity would be a factor determining her actions, however, in Chou’s film this is not the case. Return to Seoul sees Freddie revisiting South Korea several times in the scope of eight years, each time returning a different person. She refuses to be bounded by social expectations that her ethnicity and gender imply. Such freedom marks her as a privileged middle-class Millennial from Western Europe and it is the only label she cannot avoid, although she tries. While root-searching narratives tend to offer linear storylines, Freddie’s path is winding and interrupted. The pacing and visual style of the four chapters is attuned to her transitions and state of mind, making Return to Seoul a detailed portrait of a character. The film avoids exploitation, but leaves space for ambiguity and autonomy, respecting the protagonist and parts of her story that remain unknown. 

Return to Seoul

I first encountered Chou’s works at the un.thai.tled Film Festival co-organised by the Berlin-based film collective bi’bak. Having watched Golden Slumbers (2011) and Diamond Island (2016), I was looking forward to the premiere of his next film at Cannes. The only option for an interview during the festival was a short roundtable session. Seeking a more personal conversation, I contacted Chou after Cannes through a mutual friend. I didn’t expect that one day, toward the end of the festival, I would run into him in Mala – a Thai restaurant I was going to almost every day while in Cannes. Whilst eating lunch with journalists from Deep Focus 深焦 (a China-based film magazine to which I started contributing short reviews), Chou came up to our table and started chatting, asking about the films we had seen. It made me think of several scenes in Return to Seoul in which chance encounters and talks at the dinner table are loaded with a specific kind of energy – a drive to connect with other people. A few days after Cannes we scheduled a phone interview that stretched far beyond a regular roundtable session.

– MK

Return to Seoul resists being locked in an ethnically specific case that might lead to essentialism. The first trip to Korea is quite accidental for Freddie (Park Ji-Min), which already challenges the cliches of root searching narratives. I was wondering, also in the context of Golden Slumbers and Diamond Island, what are your thoughts on the relation between filmmaking and root-searching?

If you had asked me this question before my first trip to Cambodia, I would never have linked the two of them. When I first went there as a 25-year-old in 2009, the motivation was doing research about Cambodian cinema from the period before the Khmer Rouge. My grandfather, whom I never met, used to be one of the most prolific film producers in 1960s Cambodia. However, in 2009 I wouldn’t have been able to connect filmmaking with root-searching. I would even deny such a connection, refuse to be easily labelled as a person on a journey to the roots. But now, looking at it from a distance of 13 years, I have to confess that it influenced and transformed me but maybe not in a way that people would expect. 

At first Cambodia was a country I did not know anything about. A lot of people around me were telling me: “Oh, you’re doing your journey to the roots”. I was rebelling against the idea by saying that there is a great story out there that I want to explore, and I have a special access to it since it’s linked to my family history. I was presenting the trip to Cambodia as something I’m doing even a bit opportunistically, to find a good topic for a film. While writing the script of Return to Seoul, this reflex of rebellion quickly became a driving force of the story. This teenage spirit of saying “no” to absolutely everything is much more playful and also true to the reality of such root-searching trips. Freddie rejects every way in which people try to encapsulate her, define her, tell her what she should do and where she should go. She says “no” with anger coming from deep inside her. 

Narratives about adoption and journey to the roots are to some extent predefined.  As soon as you pitch an idea for such a film, people have expectations and preconceived notions. I really wanted to play with that because the testimonies – not only of adoptees, but also my own experience and those of other second-generation migrants – proved to me that reality is much more complex and different than cliché narratives cinema has been feeding us. Another interesting point is that a few days before Cannes I showed the film in Paris to several colleagues. Claire Denis was there, and she had a comment that really struck me. She said that the actress, Park Ji-Min, was in resistance. Not only as Freddie, against the characters and the events in the film. Denis was feeling that the actress herself was in resistance against the film, that she was not offering herself to the camera. And I think that’s very true. 

Return to Seoul

It is as if Freddie resisted being framed. I learned that Park Ji-Min, who played Freddie, questioned some scenes in the original script. How did the script evolve, which elements were changed? 

Actors questioning the dialogues and participating in building of the character – I don’t think it is anything new or revolutionary. There are a lot of processes like that, even though we don’t talk about them. Ji-Min has never acted before, but she also comes with her experiences, perspective and knowledge as a visual artist. She didn’t have any desire to be in the film. That influenced the dynamic of our work. It’s me who had to convince her to act. She accepted, because she believed that Freddie was a character that she wanted to defend on screen. I would say she feels proud to portray the French Asian main character that is different from the representation we saw so far in cinema. That was her motivation and reason to join the cast. She was very aware of the danger of misrepresentation. She scrutinised my own perspective since I am not a female French Asian. It’s interesting because the changes to the script all came down to details. I wouldn’t be able to tell you one major thing that we changed. It was about questioning every little dialogue, scene, gesture. We discussed everything together until we understood the character’s motivation. It was not necessarily about finding an agreement but remaining aware of the issues of gender, class, neo-colonialism that Freddie is entangled in. 

One thing I have in mind, for example, is the opening sequence. After the first meeting between Tena and Freddie, there is a Hong Sang-soo scene: three friends sitting at a dinner table. The young Korean man, Dongwan, explains to Freddie how to pour soju and how she should not pour one for herself because it’s insulting to others, especially to the person who should pour a drink for her. Originally in the script it was Tena explaining all that. That scene is very locally specific. Every foreigner will have that sort of experience: Koreans explaining to them the drinking etiquette. When we were doing the rehearsal together, I could feel some uneasiness and weird vibes from Ji-Min and Han Guka, who is portraying Tena. Guka is also a non-professional actress, she is a writer based in Paris and Berlin. The scene made them feel uncomfortable. I could feel the intensity of how Freddie’s gesture was a bit insulting. Although from a distant perspective, especially from a Western perspective, I couldn’t see at first what was wrong. It was just a scene for me, and I didn’t realise the gesture was something that could affect the people enacting this situation. I couldn’t cut out this gesture entirely from the scene, because it was very important in the introduction of Freddie as this kind of rebellious character. The script included the look of admiration Tena gives to Freddie after she breaks the rules. We started questioning what lies beneath this gaze. 

The reservation was about having an Asian character full of admiration for the freedom of a French character, who is emancipated already and able to break the rules, which is basically what the scene was about. The actresses pointed out some kind of unconscious, neo-colonialist implication in this first scene which surprised me. I had to digest the feedback and try to deconstruct the problem. I needed to find a way to keep the scene, with all the layers of violence and conflict. So, I decided that she should pour soju for Dongwan instead of Tena. 

The chemistry between Freddie and Dongwan was different?

No, it’s not that. It added some possible nuance and complexity by hinting at Freddie challenging the patriarchy. Switching this one detail allowed to keep the relationship between Freddie and Tena intact and fortified by some kind of solidarity. Their bond is out of the violent zone, even though Freddie at the end of part one becomes very brutal to Tena. In the opening scene the violence is turned against the male character. It reflects Freddie’s first reaction to a piece of Korean reality. We would have very long debates about such details, and we would implement some changes that really make the difference. 

Return to Seoul

The encounter in the hostel between Freddie and Tena has something surreal about it because of the coincidence that Tena and Dongwan speak good French. It is like fate, an instant connection. I was struck by the way it resonated with some of the experiences I had backpacking. 

I completely relate to that, because I’ve been travelling a lot. As a filmmaker, you can have at least this big perk when you’re starting your career: travelling around the world either raising money for a film or presenting it at film festivals. You don’t get paid but the festival organisers often cover the travel expenses. I had these kinds of experiences in hostels too and it’s definitely something I wanted to portray. 

I heard that the idea for the film is also a side effect of a travel. Could you tell me a bit more about the time you went to South Korea to attend Busan International Film Festival? 

Yes, that was my first time in South Korea and my first time at a big international film festival showing my film. It was in 2011, I was 27. From today’s perspective, it seems a bit random. I carried with me the DCP on my hard drive, I didn’t have a sales agent or distributor at the time. I was so new to all of it, but happy about the opportunity. I decided to go to Korea one week ahead of time. The only friend I knew who went to South Korea before was a French Korean adoptee – she eventually became the inspiration for the main character in the film. She was giving me travel tips and also recommended the guesthouse where she stayed during her first trip to South Korea in 2008. It’s funny how I had the parallel experience of being in the same guesthouse that she had three years before me. I had no idea that one day I would make a film about her. 

The scenes in the first part reflect the experience that middle-class Millennials might have in their early 20s. I went to Seoul in 2015, backpacking and couch-surfing, and it totally resonated with the way I remembered the city. 

Do you think that COVID has changed this experience of backpacking, or it is just us who changed? 

Actually, I keep asking myself this question. I think it was not impacted so much by COVID, maybe I just got old, and I look for a bit more comfort during travelling. 

I would mostly think like that too. Covid has changed the way we travel, but I think it’s more about us choosing comfort. Coming back to the first scene, you talk about fate. I wanted to create such an impression. When it comes to the language issue, I actually happened to meet some French speaking young people in Korea or in China. The usage of French language in the film was also motivated by film financing. The film was co-produced by France and one of the requirements of the grant was for the film to have the majority of dialogues spoken in French. In the first scene what was important for me is the confrontation with otherness and difference, which is symbolised here by the most essential film grammar: shot-reverse shot. Two faces opposite each other. There is also parallelism in the form, because the faces could be perceived as similar. Both Asian female faces, framed exactly in the same way. But at the same time, Freddie and Tena couldn’t be more different when it comes to their temperament and background. They try to connect, but the cut between the two shots is a hiatus in continuity. 

The original title of the film in English was All the People I Will Never Be. It refers to facing a projection of oneself or possibility of life that one would have had. If Freddie wasn’t abandoned, if she grew up in Korea, maybe she would look like Tena. But she doesn’t. The question is about the possibility of a connection following the realisation of the distance created by broken history and past. The core of the film lies in the confrontation of these two faces. 

The cut creates the feeling of defamiliarisation. As if a person was looking in the mirror, but the one in the mirror is someone totally different, living in another world. 

Shot-reverse shot is the basic grammar of film, but in my previous films I haven’t used it that much. Return to Seoul is a new development in the visual style for me. In his book on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films, French critic Jean-Michel Frodon argued that Hou invented the form that might be an alternative to shot-reverse shot, which is a long take. Of course, they existed before, but in Hou’s works there is this feeling of including the whole reality inside one shot. I was really fascinated by that vision and it’s obvious that Diamond Island was influenced by works of modern Asian cinema, including Hou Hsiao-hsien, Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Jia Zhangke. Frodon proposed that the creation of such a different cinematic language is grounded in Hou’s cultural background, whereas shot-reverse shot embodies the way of thinking and seeing in Western society, which is based on individuality. Return to Seoul is about the clash of cultures, the confrontations, the frictions and the impossibility of connection between the two worlds, so I used shot-reverse shot to play with these ideas. 

Diamond Island

I feel that the idea of a shot-reverse shot is realised when you transition in between different times, Freddie facing herself change over the years. In each of the fragments she actually looks and behaves very differently. Did the passing of time in the film also lead to changes in the visual style between the segments? 

I’ve always been fascinated by these people who can suddenly decide to change their identity, the way they’re behaving or presenting themselves. They are continuously searching for something. This quest gives them the courage to erase and reinvent themselves. These people exist. I met them and I’ve always admired the courage to be able to destroy and make a new start all over again. So, this element was obviously something important in the development of the film. But at the same time, I was aware of the danger of overly stylising the parts, totally changing the colour grading. I find it a bit too artificial and easy. Mise-en-scène is determined by the main character. The camera follows Freddie trying to be as close to her feelings, perspective and mood as possible. 

The soundtrack also differentiates the segments. Could you tell me a bit more about the selection of music for the film?

The choice of music was simultaneous with writing the script. I wanted to include vintage Korean songs in the film. These resonate with my discovery of the old Cambodian songs from the 1960s that I used a lot in my previous films, Golden Slumbers and Diamond Island. This music carries a strong sense of nostalgia and melancholia. In the first part of the film, Freddie is a bit like me in 2009 when I was doing research in Cambodia. These songs are like vehicles: you don’t understand the lyrics, but you immediately feel a sense of something calling you from the past. The second aspect is that this music is influenced by Western popular songs, so it also embodies transcultural experience. In the second part Freddie somehow finds her place in Seoul’s underground club scene, the image of which isn’t really present in Korean films. I wanted the music to represent her state of mind through a mix of German techno and a Korean independent musician who created the soundtrack for us. In part three and four there is hardly any music. I was interested in playing with silence that reflects Freddie’s transitions too.

Golden Slumbers

The last part is a lot shorter than the others. Looking at the co-production countries, I guess it was shot in Romania. I was wondering if there is some sort of director’s cut in which the last part is longer? 

No, it was always supposed to be an epilogue. The first version of the film was longer, nearly 3 hours, but I re-edited the scenes in part two and three. I didn’t want the film to end with the scene of Freddie encountering her biological mum, because I believe it would contradict everything that the film is trying to struggle with. The epilogue was difficult to write, because I was confronted with questions such as: Where should she be? What job should she be doing? Who should she be with? We were trying to stay true to the character and to the end of her journey.

I was wondering, why did you choose Romania? 

During the scriptwriting I was actually thinking of setting it in another country, but I chose Romania due to difficulty in acquiring the visa for the destination I originally had in mind. I knew I didn’t want the epilogue to be set in South Korea and not in Asia or France either. Resistance is the driving force of the film. I wanted her to be on the trip again, but then it would be very easy to finish with some sort of concluding morale. I wanted a place I had already been to so I could connect with some kind of feelings and memories I had from there. Then I remembered a trip I had in Romania around 10 years ago. I was just inspired by the Romanian landscape, its beauty and desolation. We have found a great producer in Romania, Diana Păroiu, who was familiar with my previous films, so the connection was very easy and the shooting was a great experience. 

The film definitely resists easy developments. The biggest surprise for me was the fact that Freddie became an arms dealer. How did you decide on such a profession for the character?

The choice was motivated by the story of the woman who inspired the character. She worked ten years in one of the leading modelling companies in the world. When she decided to become an arms dealer, it was shocking to everybody who knew her. It was later on when she stopped working there and had some kind of distance, perspective and critique about weapon dealing that we discussed it. She used to tell me that she couldn’t understand why she was doing it. She had this constant drive to become someone that absolutely nobody would expect her to be. Freddie pushes herself to the extremes, which might be quite self-destructive. It could be also seen as a metaphor – she is a very explosive character to the point that she will sell missiles. It was a tricky idea to play with. That is all brought up by the real history story of my friend. If I was not including the fact of her becoming the arms dealer, that would weaken the portrait. I wanted to expand on this subplot, but the film was already past 2 hours. For the sake of the economy of the film, I didn’t include it in the final cut.

About The Author

Maja Korbecka is a PhD candidate at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses include Sinophone cinemas, film festival studies and Southeast Asian cinemas. She is also interested in film curatorship and different forms of film criticism such as audiovisual essays and podcasts.

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