There are many remarkable things about director Davy Chou’s film Return To Seoul, but perhaps the most remarkable is his star, Park Ji-min, an artist without any previous acting experience. Park brings a memorable intensity to Chou’s volatile and vulnerable central character.
Chou’s film follows the journey of a 25-year-old French Korean adoptee, Frederique Benoit, 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 dancing her demons away. Yet it’s hard to satisfy her need for a sense of identity without meeting the parents who gave her away. Were they indifferent to her very existence?
Chou, director of Diamond Island, spent three years writing the script, which is loosely based on a friend’s story. Having accompanied Chou to a film festival in Korea, his friend at first expressed little interest in meeting her biological family. When she suddenly arranged a meeting, Chou accompanied her and found the reunion a moving experience. He’s familiar with 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 cast Freddie, a friend suggested Park, who was born in Korea, but moved to France with her parents when she was eight. Despite her lack of training, Chou felt she was perfect for the part and her performance proves his insight. She impressively portrays the volatile, sometimes violent Freddie.
“I’m not a professional actress,” said Park. “I’ve never taken an acting course, so I think I basically trusted my instincts, because I am generally a person who trusts her instincts. The character is not too 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,” said Chou. “So, in getting to know her, I came to understand that in order to create art, she is used to digging into the very strong intensity of her feelings”
It was obvious from the first test that she could bring his character to life.She was amazing,” said Chou, who produces films in Cambodia. “Because I work with a certain number of nonprofessionals in my productions, it’s possible to know from the first test—not if they are going to be a great actor—but whether they have that thing or not. That thing is the ability to forget themselves and the people around them, to be present and to lose themselves completely in their feelings. She had it immediately. As we did more tests, I felt that she was discovering some kind of pleasure in losing herself and bringing herself into intense zones of extreme emotions, which the part really required.”
Freddie quickly switches from one intense emotion to another —from joy to regret to sadness to anger to violence—sometimes not even inside a scene but sometimes within one shot.
“The film benefited a lot from the generosity that she showed by giving 100 percent of herself,” said Chou. “Maybe if she had been a trained actress or even had the desire to be an actress it would have been different. She did not know how to protect herself when she was portraying the character, so she portrayed her in the most intense way possible.”
“Freddie is a very complex character,” said Park. “There are a lot of paradoxes in her. I think I am also full of paradoxes. I think it helped me a lot to dig into those paradoxes. To understand them, to accept them and maybe play with them.”
The film covers the span of eight years, during which Freddie tries on and disposes of identities, trying to mesh the part of herself that is Korean with the part that’s French, the part that was abandoned as a baby and the part that was loved by parents who are so very different from her. There wasn’t much rehearsal beforehand, but there were plenty of discussions in which Park helped reframe her character.
“We hadn’t met for several months because of Covid, so in summer of 21 we met again and she said, ‘well Davy, I re-read the script and I have some questions.’ Can we discuss them? I was thinking that’s part of the process. We’re going to have a two-hour meeting to resolve them and go to rehearsal but that’s not the way it happened.”
Park questioned details that defined her character: how her character was depicted, her relationship with other characters, especially male characters, and also other Asian characters. She questioned wardrobe choices, the character’s relationship with her newly discovered father and the rest of the family. Park and Chou spent more time on discussions than on rehearsals, to the point where things occasionally became tense, but ultimately they agree that the process created a richer more complex character.
“It was about me having to listen to what she had to say,” said Chou. “About having her explain things about the character from her perspective as a woman that I could never have understood.”
A lot of Park’s concerns had to do with the script’s male gaze. She called out elements she perceived as sexist and tried to explain how hard it is for an Asian woman to live in a white male society.