Return to Seoul, directed by Davy Chou, starring Park Ji-Min, tells the story of Freddie, a young adoptee woman born in South Korea and raised in France. In a moment of inertia, the free-spirited protagonist decides to travel on her own to South Korea for the first time in what will become a search for identity, where she will try to discover not only her roots but herself. Picked up by Sony Classics for distribution after critical acclaim, Return to Seoul opened its wide release on February 17th, and if you have the opportunity to see it, don’t doubt for a second that it will be worth it. I had the wonderful opportunity to sit down and talk with both the director and protagonist of the film in the following interview.
Ji-Min, Return to Seoul was your first acting job, but you were already a visual artist. Can you tell me if the previous experience you had, despite being in a different medium, helped you creatively as an actress in any way?
Ji-Min: Your question is if my visual arts helped me…it’s helped me a lot, a lot, because of course, it’s not with the same medium because acting is using your body, your voice, your face, your look. When I do my visual arts, I use other materials to express something in me, so it’s quite different. But the creation, the way of creating something, of creating a whole character, which is thinking about also the past the character had and the future she might have or might not have, I think the process of creation that I have also in my everyday life in my artwork helped me a lot. A lot. It was my base. And also, I want to add that I work a lot with my intuitions in my artwork. And it’s helped me a lot also to play because I had to trust my instinct.
Davy, I was unfamiliar with your work before watching Return to Seoul. And I loved the film. So after watching it, I dived right into Diamond Island, your previous feature-length film. And from the first few scenes, I noticed that there was a similarity between the two. I noticed that your characters have a very deep relation to the places you explore. Not only do they inform their being, but it feels like they are almost intrinsically connected in how they both feel. I wanted to ask, where does the interest in depicting that come from?
Davy: That’s a good one. I haven’t dug myself into the similarity between the two films, actually, so it’s an interesting question. But then, it’s an obvious one that I myself couldn’t find for a while. Which is your own self-obsessions that will eventually always find themselves through the work that you’re doing as an artist. And you’re not, like, conscious of it. You’re just like, naively thinking, ”That’s a great story. Let’s make the film!” And at one point, you realize that, shit, it’s the same story.
And the one thing, actually, that I will say it’s similar, including my first documentary film, called The Golden Slumbers, back in 2011. It’s, it’s always hard to deal with a past or something that constitutes you which you don’t know. And it’s not so much about digging into it with that kind of duty of memory philosophy of, ”you need to go into the past and know where you come from.” The character will often have a more provocative or contrasting way of dealing with that, which is the desire to project themselves into the future. But, somehow, they will need to kind of find their relationship with that kind of unknown past, and in Diamond Island is a bit different; I’m talking about 20-year-old people who come from the countryside and go to work in the city. But what I build the film on which is, people will think of it when they know the history of Cambodia and the tragic history of Cambodia is that we never mentioned the Khmer Rouge, we never mentioned the genocide that Cambodia suffered from 1975 to 1979, which has changed drastically the trajectory and the history of the country.
I was born in France because of the Khmer Rouge, because my parents couldn’t go back because we lost all our family. And so by making a film about this futuristic Cambodia, with young people who never talk about the past, that’s like the elephant in the room, the thing that you build yourself, and this attempt of trying to always be obsessed with the future also means something about what you want to escape from. And Freddie’s the same. She’s on an impulse going back to Korea, but she doesn’t know anything about it. She will never really go into the history of Korea trying to understand, she doesn’t want to make this kind of genealogy investigation that people will expect her to do. She’s still moving forward. And if she decided to be Korean, as she does, in part two, she just decided to do some kind of like invention of herself as, ”Korea rejected me, you didn’t want me to be a Korean girl. Okay, I can assure you that I can be Korean, I can have a Korean boyfriend, I can live in Korea, I can have a job, I can have friends, I can make my birthday party there. But I will do it without the help of anyone, without any family and without anyone at her center. And so, that’s the common ground of this.
And, of course, you ask where does it come from? It comes from my personal story of having been born in France from Cambodian parents and not knowing anything about Cambodia until I decided to go there when I was 25. And somehow unconsciously on that kind of identity and ignorance about where you come from? It’s the basis of all my work.
Ji-Min: Yeah, as if somebody, something erased your past.
Davy: Yeah, like an ignorance that you cannot do anything about because you weren’t instrumental to that decision.
What was the process of portraying and connecting to Freddie’s battle of the search for her identity as a bicultural and adoptee person, and the vulnerability that it’s required from you to portray her?
Davy: Well, that was the purpose of the film for me. It’s like a portrait of a woman, which is not me, and her character and her personality are not mine. Actually, it’s based on my friend’s story, but it’s also based on other people I could see having this kind of, yeah, reaction to things and way of interacting and behaving with things. And it was really an attempt at how can I understand her. How can I follow the process of writing and working on the script? Like, how can I really put my mind into her mind? And by doing that process, hoping that I can understand her.
This will create some kind of coherency, even though, for the audience, sometimes you don’t really understand why she’s doing that. But when she’s doing it, it kind of makes sense. And all that attempts, I think, eventually, it’s also to be able to share something of her experience, or to share something of her intimate emotions to the audience, especially for such kind of character that it’s, yeah, an unpredictable character that sometimes doesn’t do a lot to be liked, or will always find herself differently to what you expect from her, but also have some places of real vulnerability, as you say, and I’m hoping, through the process of working and getting close to her that the audience will kind of eventually connect with her despite the fact that digging, they will find difficulty, but they will get to understand something and at the end, emotionally connect with her. Not everybody does. But that’s basically, I think, the project of the film as well.
Ji-Min: And I think the vulnerability of the character when you mentioned that she’s not predictable, and she doesn’t do expected things. It’s also because she doesn’t know herself or where she’s going, and I think she’s composing within the moment, in the present, and she’s experiencing new things but not thinking too much about what could happen in the future. And I think it’s the force and the narrative of the character and all those people. I think, for example, I am like that because, as I told you, I’m a very instinctive person. And I think it’s a way of surviving, you know, you don’t know, you don’t know what’s happening. So you have to just compose with all you have at the present moment. And I think it’s this thing which gave the vulnerability but also the force and the complexity of this character to never know what is happening next but to keep going, to keep moving.