Behind Davy Chou are three long rows of movie posters. The titles are mostly in Cambodian, each a film that the filmmaker produced as part of his Anti-Archive production house. Among them is Onada – 10,000 Nights in the Jungle, which opened Cannes Un Certain Regard last year, and Diamond Island, Chou’s first feature, set in Phnom Penh’s satellite city. But there’s a noticeable space in the top left corner that Chou tells me he’s reserving for his latest film, Return To Seoul, and even in its absence, the poster for the Cambodian-French director’s Cannes hit springs to mind: lead actress Park Ji-min, hair slicked back, standing in the middle of a neon-lit Seoul city street dressed head to toe in her act-two warrior-gear: a heavy black-trench with the collars upturned like butterfly wings mid-flight (modelled, Chou tells me, after Charlize Theron in Fury Road and Carrie-Anne Moss in The Matrix). Ji-min plays Freddie, a French adoptee who makes an impulsive detour to South Korea’s capital to meet her biological family, but finds more questions than answers in the sprawling metropolis. That’s often how it goes, Chou remarks, when a transnational sets off to find themselves. Not only did he spend a year and a half in his own motherland in 2009, crafting his documentary love letter to Cambodia’s cinematic golden age Golden Slumbers but he also spent an evening at a dinner table in Seoul with his friend Laure Badufle as she met her own biological father for the first time: a surreal encounter they would both adapt into Return To Seoul. 

Calling me from his home in Cambodia, Chou talks to me about the parallels between Freddie’s story and his own experience as a transnational; the joys and dangers of world travel; and his journey making Return to Seoul

Ji-Min Park and Davy Chou on the set of Return to Seoul (2022).

The first seeds of this film were planted when you went with your friend Laure Badufle to visit her biological family in Korea.

Laure and I just somehow knew that we shared, parallelly, this weird experience of going back to our countries of origin after many years. It was almost two years for me in Cambodia from 2009 to May 2010, and two years for her in Korea from 2008 to 2009. I can talk about my time in Cambodia with my friends in France, but it’s not something you can fully share…the context, the culture, the environments, everything feels so different. You can talk about it, but people will not intimately feel what it was like to go so far from yourself, and sometimes closer to something that is also you. Having suddenly, brutally, shared that intimate experience with Laure and her biological father bonded us indefinitely. 

Return to Seoul
Ji-Min Park and Guka Han in Return to Seoul, (dir. Davy Chou, 2022).

How did Golden Slumbers change the way you perceived cinema?

The first step of discovering this story of early Cambodian cinema was understanding that almost all traces of the film negatives were missing. When the filmmakers in the 60s and 70s, who made the first ever Cambodian films, gave up their lives to the Khmer Rouge, their films were also lost forever. But the more I investigated, asking people—the filmmakers, actors, the former audiences–many stories surfaced. People were telling me about their memories of going to see these films, of being young and going to the theatre. Suddenly, by them giving me oral testimonies of those experiences, I started to see the lost images in my mind. Then the documentary became a film without archives, where we would only bring the audience to imagine these films from oral stories, and cinematic scenes that hung out in the lost places of this history; former cinemas, old studios, places like that. What I eventually discovered was this: despite the will of destruction by the Khmer Rouge—who wanted to assassinate an entire culture from our history, accusing our cinema and music at that time as being pro-American imperialism and therefore enemies of their ideology—was only enough to destroy the physicality of the film. The cinema itself totally survived in the hearts of the people, in their memories, and in the memories of the places, the music, the traditions, included in the art. That was very strong to see, as a cinephile, to understand the power of the culture.

Location seems like a very important aspect to your movies.

It comes from me travelling for the first time to Cambodia. I was twenty-five, I came here for six months, then I decided to live here. I was really immersed in the country. It felt lonely, in the best and worst ways. It took some time to muster the courage to buy a ticket to return to France, and when I eventually went back, I had a strange feeling that the moment I stepped off the plane that Cambodian experience ceased to exist. Since that moment, whenever I travel I have this weird vertigo of these two worlds being profoundly disconnected. A pure psychological trick of the mind to put things in different boxes. Audiences get frustrated that we never see Freddie’s life in France, only Korea, but her survival instinct is telling her that when she’s there, she needs to be there, and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It’s really intuitive to me, the impermeability of these two worlds and these two zones. 

I thought a lot about travel when I was watching Return to Seoul. I wonder if there’s a misconception around the idea of travelling to find yourself. 

I think maybe it’s more like travelling not to lose yourself, but that’s a good thing as well. And I think that’s what’s happening to Freddie. I’ve met so many people with double origins, like me, who live abroad and decide to come back to Cambodia with this idea of finding themselves. I think that’s the biggest danger. Often they end up with many more questions than at the beginning. But I don’t think it’s a problem. I think that’s the journey of life, to have to confront yourself. To open yourself to see what’s inside, but not necessarily find the answers you’re looking for. I was interested in bringing that to the screen. It reflects my own journey, and I haven’t felt that in other films, that feeling of losing yourself by trying to find yourself. It’s universal. 

To me, this film is about failing over and over to experience this epiphany about yourself, that may not actually exist. 

You could call it failure, but you can see it the other way too, which is constant resurrection. The constant bravery of starting all over again. Freddie has high expectations of this journey she’s on, she won’t accept half-satisfying answers, she will not accept a false illusion about something that might be satisfying for others, but who will end up lying to themselves to be able to swallow. She has the strength of understanding when something’s an illusion, and being able to destroy it all and start again.

Do you find that some audience members have struggled to connect with Freddie?

It happens. There’s a spectrum of people telling me that they really couldn’t enter the film because the character reminded them of someone they knew in their life that hurt them, to others saying they felt connected with her from the first scene. That tells me that somehow there was some success in bringing her to life. It comes from the desire to make a character that will escape your definition of what you expect her to be. 

Return to Seoul behind the scenes
Ji-Min Park on the set of Return to Seoul (dir. Davy Chou, 2022).

What’s your perspective?

That Freddie loves to love. That’s something I see in her, and that’s the first thing she tells us, when she meets Tina at the hotel reception and, as full of feeling as ever, suddenly falls in love with her. She’s someone who is in search of some kind of absolute relationship with the people she loves, that as soon as she can feel the possibility of a relationship ending, it’s unbearable for her, and then she needs to organise that ending immediately, sometimes brutally. That’s what happened to her when she ended her relationship with Maxim, the French boyfriend. I see that in real life sometimes. And that’s something that maybe is mean, but it may also be as if Freddie was seeing the truth of a human relationship in a particularly sharp way, and that, again, she doesn’t want to live with an illusion.

Return to Seoul
Ji-Min Park in Return to Seoul, (dir. Davy Chou, 2022).

There’s one scene where Freddie has dinner with her biological father and her aunt, and her father rushes her away in a taxi after becoming overwhelmed with emotion. Why is that?

In 2017, after I told Laure that I wanted to make a film about her story, we ended up finding ourselves in Korea, sitting in front of her father once again. It was the first time she was meeting him since 2011, and second time ever. This time was very different. We spent a nice afternoon with him, and, from what I understood, it was the best time that they had ever spent together. Not an amazing time, but a good time. We went on a walk, we went to see a fortress in a small city,, we had lunch together, and then we arrived at the bus station. As soon as we entered, the father started to act strange, and he started to rush everywhere, looking for the bus, looking very stressed. I didn’t understand. He found the bus and he asked us to go very quickly, and he put us on, and that was it. Before saying bye to Laure, he hesitated, and shook her hand. He shook her hand, exactly like in the film. We were on the bus with 15 minutes left until departure, and her father was outside, waiting for it to depart. What the fuck happened? I can’t say for sure, but my interpretation is that it was too hard for him. The most difficult thing in life is a successful farewell.. It was a very Korean thing, a responsibility of, “I need to do what a father should do,” which is to organise that departure well. Freddie’s violence towards her boyfriend afterwards is coming from that failed farewell and cultural misunderstanding, so it makes sense for us not to understand either. But interestingly, when I ask a Korean audience about that specific scene, they’re never surprised by it. They just say, “Yeah, that’s exactly the way that a Korean father operates.”

You seem to have a really good grip on the nuances of Korean culture. 

It’s the fact that I’m not Korean that I was able to portray those differences as a dramatic narrative tool. That’s why I think this film is different.

What was something that you found that surprised you about Korea and the cultural customs there?

There’s this oneness of culture after a certain time of night. When you first go to Korea, not everybody is immediately welcoming, and not everybody speaks English. But at a point, at specific places at night, if you are the first one to make the first step, you won’t regret it. Any amateur of Hong Sang-soo’s films has witnessed it…you go to a place, you start to drink, and people look normal. And you just wait and drink more. And when you start to see that everybody has red faces around you, which means that everybody has drunk two to three bottles of soju alone, you start to engage conversation with someone, then suddenly the second part of the night can start, and you’re going to meet a lot of friends who you’ll forget the next day. They will forget you as well. You can see it in many Korean films, and in this film. Return to Seoul is really about meetings and farewells. My experience in Korea was a bit similar—there are these faces that you meet day after day, connecting and disconnecting. 

Return to Seoul behind the scenes
Ji-Min Park in Return to Seoul, (dir. Davy Chou, 2022).

Park Ji-min gives a world-class performance right out of the gate here. What qualities does she have that makes her such a natural actress?

Every single emotional experience that Freddie is going through, Ji-min will know that feeling under her skin. There’s a secret understanding of every single beat. She’s also been working as a visual artist for many years now, she has her workshop in Paris, so she knows how to dig generously into her own soul and put it on canvas or in her sculptures. I’ve seen it. Somehow she did the same with her acting, but this time with her face and body as the brush. It required a lot of bravery. She never wanted to be an actress, and she felt annoyed to be observed and surrounded by people, to have to give emotions on demand, but she sacrificed her comfort because she was committed to this character.

What were your intentions with portraying that very emotional moment in the movie where Freddie finally meets her mother?

I hesitated with that scene, because I feel that in many ‘journey to the roots’ stories, that kind of closure comes artificially, and I wanted to build a resistance to the false promise that everybody will be fine, reconciling themselves with their different identities and becoming whole. There’s a responsibility for me to show a more faithful depiction of these encounters, and if you look at that moment, it’s not the ideal scenario. Freddie can’t look her in the eyes, because she knows that no matter what this encounter will bring her, it will never fully fulfil her expectation of it, and it’s still some kind of a missed meeting because we don’t see the full face of the mum. We just see a hand, we just see this ghost.

In the last scene, Freddie emails her mother saying “I think I’m happy.” Why is happiness not something to be certain of?

There’s always a doubt. It’s always a chance to be taken, and it’s always something to try again. You play a video game, it’s game over, and right after game over, you have the possibility of putting in another coin. Let’s try again. Another life, another, another, another… That’s what it is about. It’s the hypothesis of happiness which comes with a choice and with a path. And maybe there’s the wrong choice, but let me try again first, now.

Return to Seoul is now streaming exclusively on MUBI.

Return to Seoul black trench coat
Ji-Min Park in Return to Seoul, (dir. Davy Chou, 2022).