She's Lost Control: Davy Chou Discusses "Return to Seoul"

The French-Cambodian filmmaker talks about his portrait of a young Korean adoptee, as quicksilver as its beguiling heroine.
Elissa Suh

Davy Chou's Return to Seoul is now showing exclusively on MUBI from July 7, 2023, in many countries—including the United Kingdom, India, and Turkey—in the series The New Auteurs.

Return to Seoul (Davy Chou, 2022).

Although stories about adoptees run the risk of becoming hackneyed melodrama, Return to Seoul skillfully avoids this trap. It’s both a singular portrait of a ferociously memorable character and a universal story of finding one’s identity at large—but this summation doesn’t capture the film’s nuances and canvas of references. Working in a country that is not his own, French-Cambodian director Davy Chou keenly observes the subtleties of Korean culture, as well as the limits of language that perpetually unveil the characters’ divergent motives. 

The film follows Frédérique “Freddie” Benoît (Ji-Min Park, in an incredible debut), a young woman who was born in Korea but raised in France, as she spontaneously travels to the country of her birth. Checking into an unassuming hostel, she fortuitously crosses paths with French-speaking native Korean Tena (Guka Han), who will hospitably serve as an unofficial interpreter, though her limits will be tested. Shortly after this, when Tena invites her to a casual restaurant, we catch our first glimpses of Freddie’s character. She explains the concept of sight reading: the process by which someone performs a new-to-them piece of music, navigating unfamiliar melodic and rhythmic waters for the first time. Suddenly, she brings the challenge to life with incautious force, gathering complete strangers to drink and revel in unison. The moment brims with perilous excitement for both the characters and the viewer. 

Freddie’s beguiling air of mischievous adventure swirls into a quiet storm when she impulsively seeks out her biological parents—a process in Korea that involves sending a telegram and patiently awaiting their reply. When she makes contact with her father, things don’t go as planned (though it becomes clearer that “plans” aren't necessarily part of Freddie’s vocabulary) as she quickly realizes her preconceptions are at odds with her newfound Korean family’s expectations. Smothered by their instant love and conforming pressures, she grows increasingly agitated, bristling at their forceful affections and impassioned, wailed apologies, impactful but fleeting moments that Chou captures with deft precision and sensitivity. Freddie’s quiet acts of defiance only grow louder as she navigates her way through the foreign city, its alien culture, and her place in it, complicating the typical narratives of adoptee identity. 

In Park’s hands, Freddie—whose playfully daring instigations are symptomatic of a more profound dilemma—is a fully formed yet not entirely knowable creature, whose brokenness is wholly expected yet thrillingly free of cliché. As the film progresses, revisiting her at certain key moments in her life—two years, seven years, and eight years later—it transforms and reshapes itself at each narrative turn. The quicksilver nature of Chou’s filmmaking encapsulates her character, even her soul—Freddie’s journey is less a rebellion than a powerful assertion of her independence, one that reverberates beyond Korea’s borders and into the world. Slipping from a persuasively Godardian opening to the robust propulsion of club scenes, and shapeshifting yet again in a quiet finale, Return to Soul is a piece of filmmaking as irrepressible as its heroine.   

Return to Seoul (Davy Chou, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: I can honestly say I had no idea what awaited me as the film went on, and part of that is because of the film’s structure. Did you always know it would unfold in the way that it did?

DAVY CHOU: The basis of the film was a story shared by my friend and the chronology of her relation with Korea. The first idea I had was that the film would be a succession of only lunches and dinners with Freddie and different members of her biological family in Korea: her father, her aunt, the father again, and then her mom. Maybe I was influenced by Ozu and Hong Sang-soo, thinking it would only be these very long scenes, but at some point I felt that I needed to develop the story into more scenes, with more characters, following the life of this woman. 

Even though the structure didn't end up that way, the idea of unfolding the story over the course of years with ellipses and time jumps was there, along with this idea that we need to evolve over time. But I don't remember how I finally came up with the three-parts thing, maybe it was after watching Moonlight. I like having these three different moments, and if you look carefully, each is structured a bit differently. Part one and three have a kind of mirroring where you find similar scenes: the adoption center, a restaurant again with the father, the Korean female friend is replaced by a French boyfriend. The middle part, the shortest, is very different because it's not your usual second act where you have very big story developments. It was a challenge audience-wise because it wasn’t going to tell you much—it's just a slice of her life two years later, where you get to see, and be, in one night and day in the life of Freddie. But if you look carefully, there are things happening in that part, too, as well as realizations for her character.

NOTEBOOK: I'm glad you brought up Hong, because I thought of him early on in the initial scene at the restaurant, which is set up as a triangle of three people drinking soju. But more than that, there are small details that are distinctly Korean gestures, just as in Hong’s films, and only by having an outsider like Freddie do you really show that contrast of the cultures and this clashing.

CHOU: I am a big fan of Hong Sang-soo, obviously, and when I go to Korea I realize that everything you've seen of his films happens in real life—people are drunk after 10 p.m. or sometimes even 7 p.m., right? [Laughs.] But I was also conscious of the danger of mimicking that cinema, which I love so much. A French director going to Korea and trying to be like Hong? Such a cliché that I should try to avoid it, even if the temptation is there. So the idea was to make it look like a Hong Song-soo shot, but then play it as a referential cinephile joke. You have this French character, a French director making a film in Korea, and the horizontal setting, table, three people, long take. If I were in the audience I would mockingly think, “Ah, okay, that guy's doing his Hong Sang-soo film,” and be a bit disappointed. But then Freddie decides not to fit into that Korean movie—she stands up and starts to create her own thing.

NOTEBOOK: Going back to what you said earlier about each film being structured differently. The visual language of your film also varies from segment to segment, and is quite different from your previous film.

CHOU: I don't know how many films I'm going to do. I can see that I need time to make films because I'm producing in between, so I find it challenging and exciting to dare and try to make a film in opposition and resistance to my previous ones. I was very excited to try to find different approaches for Return to Seoul, which has many more shots than the long takes of Diamond Island, which were maybe too obviously inherited from the masters of modern Asian cinema.

I had the idea that the evolution of the film visually would reflect the evolution of the character and her relationship with Korea. In the first part, she's young and everything feels exciting. She's discovered this new environment—it's very colorful, but at the same time, it's too colorful. There's too many signs and she's confused because she doesn't know which ones to follow—she even speaks metaphorically about these signs in one of her early monologues.

The second part is much more coherently curated—black, yellow, and green [palette]; neon lights—and it identifies one specific universe, the underground Seoul nightlife, that Freddie seems to have elected as her environment. Meanwhile, the camerawork is a bit more fragile, shaking, organic, and it kind of matches the vulnerable state of this character who has found a place that she can call home, at least in that moment of her life. But everything still looks very unstable. 

Interestingly, I usually do a precise shot list, but I wasn’t totally ready for part two, compared to part one. I don't usually use a shallow camera, because it’s a grammar that I find can become a bit simplistic and created in editing, but since I was late, I just followed my instinct and thought, Let’s go there, let’s do that, for what ended up being the tattoo salon and birthday party scene. Then you go to part three and it’s still shots again.

NOTEBOOK: Even though Freddie is on holiday, you dismantle any sort of romanticism that would be inherent to a travel or vacation film with all this stimulation happening for Freddie.

CHOU: Yeah, absolutely. I didn't want to make like the tourist postcard film that you might expect to see when you watch a movie titled “Return to Seoul.”

Shooting in Cambodia, these stories of modernity, I was maybe too much in a comfort zone, knowing who was going to help me to make the film. Return to Seoul was more about being in this zone of discomfort, bringing that French character into a country I am not familiar with. The idea involved referencing things from different backgrounds that would somehow become the singular poetry of the film, always mixing different things from different provenances, from different origins. It's a mix of a French character going to Korea, but it's also a mix of professional and non-professional actors, American films, Asian films and French films.

The scene where they eat around the table was shot with two cameras, and I was thinking about [Abdellatif] Kechiche films, like Couscous (La graine et le mulet), or Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, scenes with a lot of people. Those were more naturalistic French films that I was influenced by. Theoretically speaking, this claim of translating a Korean film into a French one already touches this question of the film’s identity, which matches the question of identity for Freddie.

Return to Seoul (Davy Chou, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: Freddie is very much an agent of chaos. But what struck me was that what she does and says is very much reactionary and that she uses it to get the upper hand in a situation. It's not unprompted, maybe with the exception of the scene on the bus. How did you modulate this disorder?

CHOU: I think you nailed it, it’s the dynamic of control. You could think of Freddie as someone who couldn't control a very important event in her life—being abandoned and sent abroad. That's the original loss of control she has been experiencing throughout her life. I've been talking to adoptees and it's something that I find in many of their accounts and experiences, the necessity to control the events. And that's exactly what happens many times in the film. Freddie feels pressured, and she's about to lose control because people start to dictate who she is, what she should do, and give some kind of definition that she doesn't want to accept. She causes chaos as a way to take back control of the situation.

The scene when she stands up and invites herself to another table and places people around [it] is very much a metaphor for being in hostile territory, which is basically the country that’s rejected her. She's taking control by remapping the table and people. If you think of the restaurant as a metaphor for Korea, then I think you get the idea. These are survival instincts; it is not about being a control freak.

NOTEBOOK: I know that initially you were looking to cast Korean adoptees, which Ji-Min isn’t. She’s also not an actress by training but an artist. What was it like working with her?

CHOU: It was an amazing process though not an easy one, I have to say. When we really started to work, a few months before shooting, she—how can I say this—challenged a lot of the ways that I thought we'd work together. She told me that she had questions after reading the script again—and it ended up being a lot of questions, asking me to justify many of my choices with the character's appearance, her relationship with male characters, with female characters, and criticizing things that she felt were a product of some kind of unconscious male gaze. It wasn't an easy discussion, and unexpected, so I tried to justify myself and discuss it with intellectual debate and rationality until a point where I felt that Ji-Min was a bit pained with my reactions. She interpreted it as me trying to win the argument, as opposed to stepping back and listening to what she has to say—and she was right. That was a key moment in the construction of the character and the process of how we worked together.

While the character was very precisely written—what you see in the film is basically what I wrote—the finer details were changed through Ji-Min's suggestions and questioning. Not only that, but also through how she took full ownership of the character after that long, deep, complicated discussion to really be Freddie and and embody her with full generosity each day of the shoot. We didn't have much to speak [about] by the time we were on the set because we talked so much about the character already, and I knew that she understood the infinitesimal emotions that Freddie is going through in each scene. That's what makes her performance so, so great—her deep understanding of it on an intellectual level, but also on the emotional and maybe even personal, historical level.

NOTEBOOK: Are there any specific examples, changes, or challenges that you remember? I know you mentioned costuming or some ways that the character interacted with men or women.

CHOU: Although this collaboration should not be summarized as only cosmetic, one of the most obvious things was the Fredde’s costume, especially in part two. I feel a bit shameful, actually, thinking about it, but the way I originally described her was almost as a clichéd Asian femme fatale that you find in many films. When you think about it, though, that kind of cool heroine that we all love in Hong Kong or Taiwanese cinema is definitely a male director’s representation. After talking to other female Asian friends that are very sensitive about that kind of representation, we reopened discussion about Freddie’s look with the costume designer Claire Dubien, and then we were excited by the idea of making Freddie in part two some kind of warrior like Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road. Then we started to think about Carrie Ann Moss in The Matrix, Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I think it’s honestly much more interesting than what I had written. The action is the same, but there is another vibe to it.

I would like to give an example because it was not only costuming. During the cab ride when Freddie comes back to Seoul with her French fiancee, Maxime, she’s looking out the window before going to dinner with her father. You can feel that she's fearful, and then she says, “You don't realize that this country is toxic for me.” Originally I wrote her saying, “I really need you to protect me.” And Ji-Min was like, “There's NO way that Freddie, after seven years of that work in her country, and evolution of herself is going to ask her boyfriend to protect her. That's so bad!”

And I honestly did not understand. She arrived at the moment of her life where she can let that kind of thing go, and I didn't see a problem with her saying that. But Ji-Min said, “No, Davy, there's no way she's gonna say that. She doesn't depend on men to be who she is.”  And I understand. So at the end she says, “I will need you.” That's it. It's a little detail, but it changed something.

NOTEBOOK: That ends up being a really great line in the movie and a small change that speaks volumes. How did you decide on making her character an arms dealer?

CHOU: That actually came from the story of my friend who inspired the movie. She used to work in the industry for quite a while. I was hesitant to use this aspect of the character because I wasn’t going tofilm her working—I didn't have the space to do that. There’s also the risk of the audience feeling distanced, too, because it raises more questions. I found it coherent with the character though, because Freddie is the kind of person who, rather than avoid a danger zone, would jump directly into it, just see what the consequences are. She’s attracted to chaos and being in a place where nobody expects her to be—and super proud of it.

There’s also the metaphor of this very explosive character, and what Maxime says at the end about how it was Freddie’s destiny to come to help South Korea against North Korea. Even though it sounds like he was making a joke, we wonder where that came from. My interpretation is that Freddie, in a moment of weakness, confessed that to Maxime while trying to find meaning in her life. He should never have shared that with her father, but it shows that maybe it's something that she believed in at one point.

NOTEBOOK: I want to ask about the dance scenes. Did you choreograph those?

CHOU: Not at all, she was totally free to do what she wanted.  The original script had French music from the ’60s or ’70s, which is not that dynamic. When I rehearse with my actors, who are professional and non-professional, I like to get people comfortable, moving their bodies, interacting with each other and stuff, so there was dancing. It was after the first lockdown and everybody was missing going to nightclubs, so we put heavy music on and just danced together. At one point I saw Ji-Min dancing a bit like she does in the film. I was absolutely shocked and mesmerized by her, the tension she has in her body, and the liberation of it, which is what you see in Freddie. 

So I was thinking it's going to be that dance, I want that dance. Ji-Min knew what I was looking for, so the idea was never to choreograph it. It was more about the character of Freddie as someone who constantly refuses to be defined. She keeps on finding people in her way, who try to define her, whether they are family from Korea, from France, friends or society, and she hates that pressure of having people dictate who she is and where she should go. That's going back to the agent of chaos thing that we were talking about. If we translate this literally into mise-en-scène, it's an actress who refuses to be framed by the camera, so with that in mind I had this idea that we'd have several scenes in which she tries to escape from the frame, while the camera still tries to capture her.

There are other instances of that, but the dance is maybe the most illustrative in that aspect. The idea was, there is this space, you do whatever you want during the three minutes of the music, and we—the DP, the key grip, and me doing the zoom—will try to capture it. It became this cat and mouse game of trying to frame her and her trying to liberate herself from the frame of the camera. 

NOTEBOOK: That song she dances to was an original, right?

CHOU: At the rehearsal in Paris, it was actually New Order—a live recording of “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and an amazing version of it. Ji-Min didn’t know that version, and she just fell in love with it on the set. But I quickly understood that the song would be too expensive. I was kind of sad and my producer advised me to ask the musicians to compose a song for the scene instead. I worked with two great musicians for the original music, but I was a bit resistant—they are great musicians, but that piece of music is a masterpiece, it’s a hit. How can you ask them to create a hit on command? He said, “Just try asking them, it's okay.” So I asked and they sent me something—not exactly the final version that we hear in the film, but close—and I immediately fell in love with it. I love it. I listened to it every day while shooting because that happened even before we even started. 

When we finally were shooting the scene, I decided to play New Order so that I could be sure that Ji-min would react to the sound extremely emotionally.  And then after the editing was done, they worked on it again and pumped the new song up with more drums and rhythm because of the intensity of Ji-min's dance. I'm quite impressed, like extremely impressed, by the musicians, how they finally make that kind of tune. I think the song deserves to be a global hit, actually. 

Return to Seoul (Davy Chou, 2022).

NOTEBOOK: Are there any other maybe unconventional influences on this film?

CHOU: So many influences, but the one that for me is most obvious, but I don't know if other people see, is the Safdie brothers. When you talk about filming chaos, they are filmmakers who have mastered that, film after film. We have a very different type of mise-en-scène obviously, but the look of the film is a bit like Good Time when you think of the drinking scenes in the beginning. We played with saturation and not being afraid to go towards something that usually is considered ugly—red and pink faces, even green tones for skin. You don't do it because it looks like people are sick, but it creates something so interesting. It’s not about being ugly—red is the blood in your flesh that is popping out, suddenly you become so alive. And that's what I wanted: to create this organic, fully immersive world.

Synonyms by Nadav Lapid is another one that I was obsessed with. It's hard to see but thematically there are actually some resonances in the way that he was so playful with the mise-en-scène, to really go where he wanted and scene after scene, and to shape every scene from the desire of the scene. Also the relationship between the camera and the actor, as I was saying about my theoretical idea

Strangely, David Fincher and The Social Network helped me a lot to find my way through filming big scenes with seven or eight people around the table and how to bring the connection between the people, the little eye game of a connection between characters, and the dynamic forces of what's going on between the people when there are so many people. 

For part two, in terms of lighting and ambience, we thought of The Matrix, Fincher, and Hou Hsiao-hsien. People mention Millennium Mambo, but actually I was more thinking about Three Times, and if you watch carefully, there was a direct quotation of Café Lumière in the scene with her boyfriend, the tattoo artist. 

I love to work with references, but this is a story of someone who tries to find herself, which means she tries to invent herself, which is to find our own self-identity as opposed to taking on the identity that would come to her, or be pushed on her. And so throughout the process of making the film, I was trying to liberate myself as well from influences and find the right shot at the right moment. Sometimes simple scenes are the most difficult things to film, as in part three, the last dinner that she has with the father. I can't really say what the influences are here. It was more about trying to be true to the situation in the only way that I felt was right.

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