As Told To

Hannah Strong


Illustration by

Suleman Aqeel Khilji

Davy Chou: ‘This exquisite character helped me to create something more faithful to the truth’

The writer/director of the magical Return to Seoul explains how he drew inspiration from a close friend to create his striking protagonist.

Cambodian-French filmmaker Davy Chou creates an intimate, unpredictable character study in Return to Seoul, which documents a young woman’s journey to find her biological family in South Korea. Ji-Min Park gives an excellent performance as the headstrong and defiant Freddie – a character that’s close to Chou’s heart. He speaks to us about how the truth is stranger than fiction.

“The story of Return to Seoul comes from a friend of mine, and if not for what we experienced together in 2011, there would not be a film. I was 28 at the time and my very first feature length documentary, Golden Slumbers, was having its world premiere at a film festival in Korea. I was super excited to go to Korea, and then I received a phone call from a friend who I used to study with. At that time she would never talk about Korea – she had never been back there, and I didn’t talk about Cambodia as I’d never been there either. Strangely enough, at the age of 25 we both went to our countries of origin.

She spent a while in Korea, and then came back to France thinking she would never go back to Korea. But when she heard I was going, she called and said she’d like to come with me. So we embarked on that journey together, and she warned me before, ‘We won’t meet my father. I met him twice, but I don’t want to see him.’ But then after two or three days in Korea, she told me, ‘I just texted my father, I’m seeing him tomorrow. Do you want to come with me?’ So we went on a bus drive similar to the one in the film, with a friend who we asked to come and translate for us. Two hours later, we’re facing her Korean father and grandma.

It was the same feeling of awkwardness, dryness, heaviness – things that were impossible to totally express and frustration with being unable to communicate clearly. A lot of contradictory feelings, and we’re witnessing all that. It was just so strong. I took notes. I thought about it again after making Diamond Island, and I talked to my friend about the idea and she was super positive about it. I’d been going to Korea a lot for work, and loved the country, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it. Let’s go.’

My friend very much inspired the character of Freddie too – though recently, I talked to her and she said that she found that Freddie is full of confidence, and she always feels full of doubt. So she said, ‘Maybe it’s your interpretation of me.’ Maybe what I feel from her personality shaped the character, which means she’s a different sort of person than we usually see when we think of a female Asian character in film or fiction. Especially in this kind of story, where we expect the character to be introspective and sort of delicate. On the contrary, Freddie’s just explosive, and any time that we or someone in the film tries to define her, she will just oppose and refuse to conform. She both escapes and confronts in a very dynamic way, and for me, that’s where the interesting element of the film is.

And personally, having been through a similar journey of my own in Cambodia, I believe the real heart of this experience is going back to a place where you’re supposed to come from, that you know nothing about, and having a much more complex reaction. It’s much more brutal, much more frustrating. It takes a much longer time to unfold the truth of it and to understand. So having this exquisite character helped me to create something that would be more faithful to the truth, in terms of what exactly is the experience of feeling that we never feel home. Of this kind of universal longing for belonging that Freddie is going through.”

Published 4 May 2023

Tags: Davy Chou Return to Seoul

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