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French-Cambodian director questions his identity in ‘Return to Seoul’

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Park Ji Min as Freddy in “Return to Seoul” [AT9FILM]

Return to Seoul is a movie that takes place in Seoul but speaks English, French and Korean. It’s a multinational collaborative production that screened at Cannes and in Cambodia’s selection for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Academy Awards. It’s those things, and more.

The film follows Freddy, a Korean-born French woman who returns to her hometown on a whim. Throughout her intermittent seven-year sojourn, she not only gains a status of her own in Korea, but also bonds – or fails – with her biological family and many others. It may seem like a simple introduction, but “Back to Seoul” sheds light on what it means to resonate with others, and the idea of ​​Korean identity and family.

On December 15, Korea JoongAng Daily caught up with French-Cambodian director Davey Chu of “Return to Seoul” for a conversation about the film’s multiple themes, Freddy’s story-telling process, and Korean casting. And veterans like Oh Kwang-Rock and Kim. Sun Young with a bunch of new talent.

Back to Seoul opens in European theaters in January, in North America in February, and in Korea in the first half of 2023.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Director Davey Chu [AT9FILM]

s. Retour à Seoul is based on the experiences of a friend of yours, an adopted French citizen born in Korea. But the film’s themes apply to much of modern Korea and Asia, with languages ​​intermingled and lost in translation, the gap between old and young generations, between natives and foreigners, the historical context of war and development, and the question of belonging. and identity. What is the scope of the film and what other sources of inspiration did you provide for the film?

against. Teachings from my life were another source of inspiration, and I didn’t initially jump into larger themes for the film. The universality of the story emerged during the process of returning to Seoul.

My personal life experience has taught me that you have to start with your intuition. There is one thing that catches your eye at first and you don’t see it wider than that at first. A powerful calling, a powerful calling for something that resonates within you as you follow that intuition through it. This is what happened with “Return to Seoul”. As I began meeting many Korean adoptees and learning more about Korean culture, the larger themes of multiculturalism, modern Asian society, and family began to emerge.

I also have reservations and doubts because I’m not Korean, I’m not a woman, and I’m not adopted. But from my own experience of living in two places – Cambodia and France – I understood the film I wanted to make.

The film sometimes humorously and sometimes critically observes the idiosyncrasies of Seoul and the way Koreans interact in social settings, whether through the eyes of a foreigner or through the eyes of one who has adapted to this way of life. It must have taken a lot of research to make this happen. Have you spent a lot of time in Seoul yourself or consulted many Koreans and those who have lived in Korea?

I’ve talked to a lot of people in Korea, and my first thought was whether this story would be interesting and attractive to a Korean audience.

I felt it was going to be very difficult. People in the Korean film industry told me it was a very interesting story, but Korean audiences might not be excited about another adoptive movie. The history of international adoption in Korea is well known. People feel like they’ve seen it before. But while I was researching the movie and doing the casting, I talked to many Koreans and found that the younger generation is actually very interested and interesting in what the movie has to say.

Park Ji-min's Freddie hitchhikes in Seoul after returning to her hometown on a whim. [AT9FILM]

Park Ji-min’s Freddie hitchhikes in Seoul after returning to her hometown on a whim. [AT9FILM]

One of the amazing features of Return to Seoul is that it is well aware of the many contexts in which people operate. Not only does the movie take on cartoons, but it also includes stories and alludes to many different aspects of Korea. How important do you think the story and social themes are in fairy tales, and what is the process of examining these stories from an outsider’s perspective?

The historical, political, and social elements that can lead to a situation are important to the story’s plot, and the balance between these themes and fantasy, between information and emotion, was important. It’s a very difficult balance. I tried to get enough information into the film so that the audience would understand that there is context to the story, but it just doesn’t feel like a documentary.

I also don’t want to be a judge of Korea or anything else we’re talking about from an outsider’s perspective. So I studied by watching hundreds of Korean movies and TV and tried to find that unique balance.

Almost every character in the movie is complex, and the audience seems to react differently to each of them, such as Freddy’s biological father, with whom Freddy had a rocky relationship after he met his friends and his adoptive mother. How did the masses react?

It’s really cool, how different people interact with the characters. Taking Freddy’s father for example, some have responded in an overly aggressive and mischievous manner, while others deeply understand and sympathize with him. It was the same with all the other characters. No one is completely loved and no one is completely hated. Therefore, it is up to the people to define themselves and challenge themselves according to their judgment through these characters.

Park Ji Min who plays Freddy had never acted before returning to Seoul and finding her and collaborating with her by chance. In your previous work, you also put together a group of actors for the first time. How do you look for that kind of raw talent in actors when there’s no standard? And how did you come to star in famous Korean actors like Oh Kwang-rok and Kim Sun-Young?

Intuition is again an important tool. I looked at the faces of the people I wanted to photograph, saw their art or writing, and talked with them in one-on-one conversations. This is how we chose Ji Min for Freddy and Han Guka for Tina, the friend and employee of the guest house Freddy met with. For Oh and Kim, Oh was my first choice and he has amazing expressions with his eyes. Kim came a week before the shoot because she was so busy I didn’t think she would come, but she just blew us away.

The actor we found for the role of Tina’s French-speaking boyfriend, Son Seung-beom, was also great. I found him watching a huge Korean movie – “Steel Rain 2: Summit” – and he didn’t speak a word of French but said his lines phonetically. I think he’s one of the most amazing actors I’ve ever met.

Park Ji-min as Freddy at a bar with Korean friends and acquaintances. [AT9FILM]

Park Ji-min as Freddy at a bar with Korean friends and acquaintances. [AT9FILM]

There’s a scene where Freddy says, ‘I’m French,’ and Tina says, ‘But you’re also part Korean. Identity attached to countries or places is very old and outdated, but we still identify a lot with the question of home. ‘Where are you from?’ This is the first thing that is asked when meeting people.

It’s an old idea and it’s crazy that it’s outdated, but at the same time, it’s on our show, so to speak, to talk about it. I think people should stick to something solid. It is also about forming personal identities that will not be shaken. Surprisingly, films about identity are not very common.

One of the film’s central questions seems to be: “Can people of different backgrounds and those who have lived in separate oceans understand and belong to each other?” Again, this applies to Freddy and his father as well as his other encounters. What do you intend to describe Freddy’s relationships?

Through Freddy and his father, I wanted to depict the meeting of these two faces so similar, but there would always be some kind of difference and the inevitable and indestructible gap between them, despite all the will to reduce this distance. Even on a broader level of cultural differences, I think ultimately the question is, “How do we communicate?” Impossible. And I think people want to see a healing movie and see easy reconciliations. But the movie rejects simple storytelling and the question of what we’re trying to portray: “What does it mean to be happy?” – It’s never easy. It’s a constant search. Our story presents many different possibilities.

by Lim Jung Won [lim.jeongwon@joongang.co.kr]

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