Davy Chou on Wrestling with Identity in “Return to Seoul”

Of the many twists and turns in “Return to Seoul,” the most unbelievable actually happened to director Davy Chou’s friend who inspired the film, including the 10 years she spent as an emissary to an international arms dealer. As Andre (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), an imagined version of her boss, tells her on-screen surrogate Freddie (Park Ji-min), it’s a profession she’s uniquely suited to with few attachments to speak of, increasingly distant from her adoptive parents in France as her twenties bring curiosity about her birth parents in South Korea and few friends to speak of as she goes in search of them. Chou had witnessed firsthand how absent an answer to that question had made his friend capable of just about anything at any time, once inviting her to travel with him to Busan for the festival premiere of his film “Golden Slumbers” and after insisting that the last thing she wanted to do was to meet with her birth father, a meeting became the main objective of the trip, a situation that was far more precarious than any she’d deal with involving weapons.

That scene is loosely recreated in “Return to Seoul,” where it’s not entirely clear at any moment what Freddie wants when she can’t be sure of it herself, but it’s led to a resistance to ever be pinned down, disassociating herself from any cultural markers or familial ties when a feeling of belonging has felt so distant she believes the best course of action is to protect herself from it. It’s a feeling that Chou could understand deeply, not only having sat in on such an emotional exchange in real life primarily to show his support for his friend, but in growing up at a remove from his Cambodian birthright when his parents had to flee the terror imposed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, and one that he found was shared by Park, a visual artist who would draw stares in her native France due to her Korean heritage.

In what may well be among the great screen debuts of all time, Park could channel her experience as an artist in other arenas, taking memories of putting herself out for public rejection in her desire to be understood through her art installations and turning it into an electrifyingly unpredictable and rebellious turn as Freddie, who shows a remarkably admirable adaptability to any circumstances that may come up, cloaked in a badass leather jacket, yet still can’t entirely escape the sting of having her entreaties to her birth parents, now separated, largely unreturned throughout the 10 years that the film covers, a turbulent time in anyone’s life when it sees her move from her twenties to her thirties, but particularly so when she feels unwanted by the people that gave birth to her.

Although it’s difficult for Freddie to ever get a grip on such a life, “Return to Seoul” puts a hold on you from its very first scene in which she gets an entire bar drunk on soju upon arriving in South Korea and lets the intoxication last well after leaving the theater when her journey proves so harrowing. On the eve of the film’s U.S. release, Chou spoke about how “Return to Seoul” was initially kicked into production by the same self-doubts that his lead character experienced, wrangling the sprawling narrative into its now bewitching form and how Freddie may not be as alone as she thinks in this world, to go by how audiences have responded around the world since its debut at Cannes.

I know there was some time in between your visit to South Korea with your friend and the time you decided to sit down and start cracking a story in earnest. What was it about it that resurfaced in your mind?

It’s interesting because it has to do with something about the character of Freddie that I believed in [from before this story took shape]. Basically what happened in 2011 was that I already photographed that moment [of meeting her father] to archive for my friend as a friend, and I remember while experiencing it, I was thinking, “There would be a great film about that… with that film.” And there was immediately another voice in my head to say, “No way you’re making that film because you don’t know Korea. This is your first time being there. You’re already trying to make film in Cambodia, which is a country you don’t know much [about], so that’s not a film you’re going to make anytime soon.” But maybe a voice in my head was thinking, “Maybe later one day.”

Of course, this happens a lot for filmmakers, to have an idea of a film [thinking], “Maybe one day. But I do remember taking notes after that and I always had this idea in mind under the [rug]. I would not think a lot about it, but I’d remember that that’s one of tens of other ideas that I had. Then back in 2017, I was [facing] a blank page after my last film, “Diamond Island,” which I had the idea a long time ago to make a film about youth in Cambodia, and in Phnom Penh, I [found myself] with the idea of, “Okay, now I take six months and I need to write something,” but I didn’t know what it was. I started writing a film taking place in France, involving with virtual realities — an extension of my previous film, “Diamond Island,” in term of thematics, but in France with French actors and I found myself falling into a limbo where at the end I was thinking, “No, that’s going nowhere” and I had to go to see my producer in France in June 2017.

And June was coming, and I was like, “Oh my God, I have nothing to show her. What are you doing?” I didn’t go to film school, so because of that, some times I read books and [I remember in] “The Anatomy of the Scenario” by John Truby, he was saying, “To find your idea of film, just take a blank page and write all the ideas of film you ever had in your life and then see which one is creepy and bad and suddenly you’re going to see at least five ideas and maybe your film is there.” So I did that, and then suddenly there was this feeling, and it happened that I had to be in London just before being in France to show my first film “Golden Slumbers” and my friend who inspired Freddie was living in London at the time, and she saw it as a sign exactly like Freddie the film, when she says, “You need to believe in signs. Maybe that’s a sign.” So I made a bet with myself. I never told her that I have an idea of making a film because it was just an intuition, but I said, “I going to open myself to her [about this idea] and let’s see what she says. If she’s enthusiastic then we’ll do the film.” It was as stupid as that.

So I went there, we shared some beers and then I told her, and she was so enthusiastic. Then I had a lunch with my producer and she never heard about that story [either], so [again it was] “I have this idea and let’s see how she reacts.” And she was super enthusiastic, so [I said] “Okay, maybe that’s the film.” After few weeks, I asked my friend [who inspired Freddie] “Maybe you can write me some elements of your life,” and that triggered some kind of process for her to look back at her story. She went really into doing some self-analysis of herself and she wrote this 40-page document out of nowhere that she sent to me, full of details with photos and dates and everything. I just jumped into it — I was isolated few months later in Cambodia for one week, and then I had the structure of the film.

So that’s really how it started. And that’s funny because I think [I had] a link with the character Freddie because action is preceding realization, [which is] exactly what happened to Freddie. She jumped to South Korea, and she doesn’t know why she’s going there. And if she knew, maybe she wouldn’t go and I think sometime life is like this. You need to follow impulse and intuition. You have no idea why you’re doing that, and sometimes it’s the pressure of things. In this case [of my friend], this typhoon story of Japan, we don’t know if it’s true or not, but it looked like she had to choose and she said, “Okay, let’s go to Korea” because as she says, “When you’re afraid of something, let’s jump into it.” For me, it was this pressure of not having anything to pitch to my producer that suddenly it had to happen, so that’s funny.

In Toronto, you mentioned that it was pretty apparent the story could be told in three parts, but you had trouble cracking how to open the second. Was there a particular breakthrough?

It was more like I had the intuition that the second part will not have any big elements of the story. It will be something a bit surprising and experimental in which it will be just tasting the life of Freddie because she never says she will stay in Korea. We believe that she’s going back to France, and then, surprise, two years later it looks like as if she never went back. Maybe she decided to stay there out of another impulse. And for me, she never said it straight, but what she does in the second part is out of her own will. She decides [to stay] as a kind of challenge for herself to take back the current life that she hadn’t had [before] because of the choice of her parents having her, so it [was the] ultimate provocation of her to say, “Okay, Korea rejected me. You didn’t want me to be Korean. I gonna show you all that I can be Korean. I can live there, I can have a job, I can have a boyfriend and friends, but I will do it without the help of anyone. And I can show you that I can reinvent my life as a Korean.”

I find people fascinating who want to prove something to the whole world and how that affects their life, but I just wanted to have a slice of her life, so it was challenging because we follow this character that I have shaped and built for an hour and suddenly she erases her life with a snap of her finger and you have to deal with new characters. Without a big storyline — just one evening and one morning after and one other evening alone in her flat — it was challenging for the audience to follow her into that and then jump to something else because of that rupture of suddenly changing — even the nature of the narration of the film and the pacing that goes quite fast with the kind of electricity of the character. Suddenly in that moment where it’s her birthday [in the second part] and she’s let herself go and she cannot losing control in that party, I wanted to be into some hypnotic vibe, and I believe that is a secret narrative of that second part.

During that moment between the party and the second evening alone in her house, when she opens the e-mail of her father, there’s the realization that is the end of her trip in Korea and she needs to go back to France, [ending] that challenge she invented for herself to live her life as Korean and she’s realizing that something is not fully satisfying. Maybe she was lying to herself to say that, “I want to live life as a Korean,” but the really what she was looking for is to have an answer from her mom. That’s what I tried to put in part two, but I [myself] was hiding behind the story at the risk of an audience not really catching that and I think that’s something she will never confess to anyone. That’s why at the end, Freddie never really open her heart to anyone except for the arms dealer, which maybe, and ironically, but maybe not so surprisingly, [is how] we experience life — it’s the furthest person and the most distant one that she shares the true feelings that she has.

You’ve spoken about how you weren’t really drawn to close-ups before this film, but they’re so strong here. How did you figure out a visual style for this?

There is the original title of the film “All The People I’ll Never Be,” and that’s a feeling that you have when people go back to the country where they’re supposed to have been born or grew up in but they know nothing about. I could have been born in Cambodia if it wasn’t for the Khmer Rouge regime that perpetrated the genocide, but the first thing you do [upon stepping foot there yourself] is always look at people and they have the same face as you, but the experience is the most opposite you can imagine from your own. There is this kind of fascination of looking at faces of people to say, “That could have been me. All the people I will never be, and all the people that I will never fully understand because it’s the impossible experience and desire being in the other people’s shoes.”

I read an amazing article about “Lost Highway” by David Lynch one day and it was a different take than what people usually say about “Lost Highway,” an essay saying that the film is about the impossibility of experiencing [what someone else has], of trying to be someone else, which is the ultimate fantasy. When you’re a filmmaker, you always think of that because you making films about other experiences which are not yours and the closeup became the most effective, expressive tool of that feeling of a face confronting a face. It’s like all the humanity of a human being is just imposing itself on a face, so filming closeup is about that suddenly you have a continent that is here and it’s these contradictory forces of familiarity because [you have] an Asian face and an Asian face [that are similar] and something [like] another continent that you will never understand. I found myself navigating between that and one of my collaborators kept telling me [while] reading the script, she was always seeing the film as a constellation of faces — these different faces that the character is attracted to, tries to understand, and trying to produce the distance that is imposed by the history and by the different cultures, trying to get close to these faces but never totally reach because it’s impossible.

What’s this been like to travel with?

That’s the best gift of the director. When you spend five years making the film, you work with your team, but there’s also a lot of time that you work alone and with your doubts and everything like that, so having the chance to try to share the film with people and to connect with audiences after the screening, so then they can share stories, it’s a gift. And what I’ve found and was a bit surprised with this is that, more than my other firms, how much systematically in every country I’ve been showing the film in, whether I was in America, in Asia, in Europe, in Australia, I always find audience coming to me at the end, very, very touched by the film saying that they felt that they understood the character because they found themselves having similar feeling as her. Sometimes it’s adoptees, but it’s [not] only adoptees. Most of the time it’s people who have this dual cultural experience who tell me of this feeling of displacement, this anger, this feeling of constant dissatisfaction, and the pressure of being defined by other people and having to fight with the way people look at you.

Yeah, it’s a French-Korean film — and Cambodian as well — but it’s touching everyone in the world because that particular experience that Freddie is going through is something extremely universal and very modern I believe as well. For many of us, people from a second generation of immigrants that have different places that we can call home, identity becomes some kind of obsession where there is a pressure to define yourself [whether] in a conservative way of this new nationalism or in a progressive way of being able to self-define yourself, but still there is this pressure of definition that sometimes people don’t find themselves comfortable with because they don’t think that they belong in only one place and I think this film is talking to them as well.

“Return to Seoul” opens on February 17th in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and Sunset 5 before expanding across the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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