A complex character tries to reconcile the past in “Return To Seoul”

There are a lot of extraordinary things in director Davy Chou’s film Return to Seoul, but perhaps most notable is its star, Park Ji-min, an artist with no previous acting experience. Park brings memorable intensity to Chou’s volatile and vulnerable central character.

Chou’s film follows the journey of Frederique Benoit, a 25-year-old French-Korean adopted, as she lands in Korea and must decide whether to find her biological parents. At first she seems indifferent, more interested in soju shots, flirting with strangers and making her demons dance about her. Yet it is difficult to satisfy her need for a sense of identity without meeting the parents who have betrayed her. Were they indifferent to her very existence?

Chou, director of The island of diamonds, he spent three years writing the script, which is loosely based on a friend’s story. After accompanying Chou to a film festival in Korea, his friend initially expressed little interest in meeting his biological family. When she suddenly arranged a meeting, Chou accompanied her and found the meeting a moving experience. He knows the idea of ​​belonging to two worlds, having grown up in France, the son of Cambodian parents, who escaped the Khmer Rouge regime. He only returned to Cambodia at the age of 25.

When it was time to choose Freddie, a friend suggested Park, who was born in Korea but moved to France with her parents when she was eight. Despite the lack of training, Chou felt she was perfect for the part of her and her interpretation of her demonstrates her insight into her. She impressively portrays the volatile, sometimes violent Freddie.

“I’m not a professional actress,” Park said. “I’ve never taken an acting class, so I think I basically believed in my instincts, because I’m usually someone who trusts her instincts. The character is not very different from me. We have similarities. I think I found something inside of me that was like this character and it helped me a lot to play that role. “

“Ji-min is a visual artist,” Chou said. “So, knowing her, I realized that to create art she is used to delving into the very strong intensity of her feelings about her”

It was obvious from the first test that he could bring his character to life.

“It was fantastic,” said Chou, who produces films in Cambodia. “Since I work with a number of non-professionals in my productions, it is possible to know from the first test, not if they will become a great actor, but if they have that thing or not. That thing is the ability to forget about yourself and the people around them, to be present and completely lose yourself in your own feelings. He got it right away. As we did more tests, I felt that he was finding a kind of pleasure in getting lost and taking himself into intense zones of extreme emotions, which the part really required. “

Freddie quickly goes from one intense emotion to another, from joy to regret, to sadness, from anger to violence, sometimes not even within a scene, but sometimes within a frame.

“The film benefited a lot from the generosity it showed by giving 100% of itself,” Chou said. “Maybe if she had been a trained actress or even she just had the desire to be an actress it would have been different. She didn’t know how to protect herself when she played her character, so she played her in the most intense way possible. “

“Freddie is a very complex character,” Park said. “There are many paradoxes in her. I think I’m also full of paradoxes. I think she helped me a lot to dig into those paradoxes. To understand them, to accept them and maybe play with them “.

The film spans the span of eight years, during which Freddie tries and gets rid of identities, trying to unite the part of herself that is Korean with the part that is French, the part that was abandoned as a child and the part who has been loved by parents who are very different from her. There hasn’t been a lot of rehearsal ahead of time, but there has been a lot of discussion where Park has helped reframe her character.

“We hadn’t seen each other for several months due to Covid, so in the summer of 21 we met again and she said, ‘Well, Davy, I’ve re-read the script and I have a few questions.’ Can we discuss it? I was thinking it’s part of the trial. We’ll have a two-hour meeting to sort it out and go to rehearsal, but that didn’t happen. “

Park questioned the details that defined his character: how his character was portrayed, his relationship with other characters, especially male characters, and even other Asian characters. He questioned wardrobe choices, the character’s relationship with his newly discovered father and the rest of the family. Park and Chou spent more time arguing than rehearsing, to the point where things occasionally got tense, but ultimately agree that the trial created a richer, more complex character.

“It was about having to listen to what he had to say,” Chou said. “I explained things to her about her character from her point of view as a woman that I could never understand.”

Many of Park’s concerns had to do with the male gaze of the script. She brought up elements that she perceived as sexist and tried to explain how difficult it is for an Asian woman to live in a white male society.

“He’s a man,” Park said. “We have a film about a female character and the female character is the focus of that film. There are many things he will never understand. Not because he’s a bad person, but he’s a man who makes a movie with a very strong female character. So the problem I saw in the script was the problem that the male gaze has on a woman and in particular on an Asian woman. “

“I think that’s what I love about the collective work process and also the process of working with non-professionals,” said Chou. “They challenge you to see things from a different perspective. Ji-min took it to another level.

The film features some non-professionals, including Guka Han as Tena and Emeline Briffaud as Lucie, but also some prominent professionals, including French actor and director Louis-Do de Lencquesaing. Korean actress Kim Sun-young appeared in the film as Freddie’s aunt and Oh Kwang-rok played her biological father. Kim plays a pivotal role in the film as the only member of Freddie’s Korean family who speaks English. Freddie’s father and grandmother profusely express their grief for abandoning her, but her aunt at least tries to figure out who she has become.

“She’s a very important character, even if it’s a small role,” Chou said. “Kim Sun-young’s performance is very funny. She brought humor into the film and she really brings a kind of humanity to it. The translators, her aunt of hers and Tena, are a kind of intermediaries. They ask you questions to try to make your broken story a little less broken and try to build bridges of communication. I am very grateful that she was in the film ”.

Over the span of about 15 years, more than 200,000 Korean children have been adopted, mostly in other countries. Although the topic has been covered in various forms of Korean media, Chou felt a disparity between the media’s portrayals and the reality of the feelings his friend and other adoptees have faced.

“One of the reasons I made the film was to offer a different perspective that I think is more faithful to the complexity of the situation,” said Chou. “The meeting with the biological parents is not the end of the pain nor the easy reconciliation between you and your past. Mostly it opens up more questions and more pain. It is a very, very long journey that perhaps has no end. Maybe the pain will last forever. Sadness could always exist. ”

“The film shows the experience from the point of view of the child,” Park said. “It’s interesting because in Korea when there are TV shows about adoptees, TV shows that cause tears, it’s mostly from the parents’ point of view. The film, even if it is fictional, shows how children can be hurt and sad. Perhaps they will never find the answer to the question they are asking “.

While offering a glimpse into the complex legacy of adoption, Return to Seoul it also provides a dynamic female character, whose cheeky personality and troubled evolution leaves an indelible impression.

The Franco-German-Belgian co-production premiered on 22 May at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section. Sony Pictures Classics plans to release the film in North America by the end of 2022.

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