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In 2011, French-Cambodian director Davy Chou was preparing to travel to the Busan International Film Festival to screen his feature debut, Golden Slumbers, when one of his closest friends called to say, “You’re going to South Korea? I’m coming with you.”
The friend was a young woman around Chou’s age — they were both in their 20s at the time — who was born in South Korea but had been adopted by a French couple and raised in Paris. Two days into their trip, she texted her Korean birth father and arranged a meeting, inviting Chou to tag along.
“She said she had met him briefly twice before, and it had not gone well. I said, ‘Sure, let’s go,'” Chou remembers.
“The day after, I was sitting with her at a table, facing her father and her grandma, and I was just shocked, watching something that I never imagined I would see,” he says. “There were extremely complex emotions, very difficult and contradictory, as well as a language barrier. They were facing this long broken history and suddenly trying to reconnect — but obviously it was somewhat impossible.” He adds: “It stayed in my mind as like a dream for a possible film.”
Eleven years later, a very similar scene serves as a pivotal moment in Chou’s third feature, Return to Seoul, premiering in Un Certain Regard at Cannes. The film follows a 25-year-old woman named Freddie, played by first-time actress Ji Min Park, as she returns to South Korea on an impulse to explore the country of her origin. Expressive, unpredictable, feminist and fun, Freddie is a vibrant beam of searching, semi-wounded humanity. The film moves between different time periods as she tries to come to terms with the profound cross-cultural gulf — and inescapable loneliness — of her international adoption experience, seeking to build a relationship with a Korean family that comes from a profoundly different world, while also trying on an array of different identities — plunging into Seoul’s hedonistic underground, acquiring and abandoning a clean-cut French boyfriend, even briefly becoming a professional arms dealer, after a decidedly casual encounter proves more enduring.
The premise for Return to Seoul came with considerable challenges for Chou: His knowledge of Korean culture was cursory, as was his grasp of the adoption experience. He accommodated for such gaps by reading books, meeting with Korean adoptees in Paris and exchanging lengthy emails with the friend who had sparked the story. Long, candid conversations with his lead actress, Park — whom he met through a personal introduction and who he immediately felt shared the essence of Freddie’s free-spiritedness — challenged some of his notions as a male director and helped him understand how a young French woman might respond to aspects of Korea’s highly patriarchal society. But when it came to the character’s fundamental drive — the restless, youthful quest for identity and self-understanding — the director discovered a fundamental connection in himself.
Chou was born in France to Cambodian parents who escaped to Paris shortly before the rise of the Khmer Rouge, whose reign of terror killed most of his extended family who stayed behind. At the age of 25, he accompanied his parents on their first trip back to Cambodia — an emotionally intense trip that ignited his own journey of reckoning with the land and culture of his origins. In the years that followed, Chou spent considerable time in Cambodia, establishing a youth-driven film collective in Phnom Penh, and directing his first two features there: Golden Slumbers (2012), a documentary about the country’s lost film heritage, and Diamond Island (2016), a compassionate drama about youth life in a rapidly modernizing enclave of the Cambodian capital, starring all non-professional actors.
“There is a personal link to this film’s story, but it wasn’t obvious to me at first — not until I was writing it,” Chou says. “Because I’m not a woman, I’m not Korean, and I’m not an adoptee.”
“But obviously there is something I do deeply connect with,” he adds, “which is the double culture, the search for identity and how the journey to your roots can affect your life forever — because there’s no return ticket.”
On day one of the Cannes market, Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film for North America, Latin America, Middle East, Australia and New Zealand. Its English-language title was changed to Return to Seoul from All the People I’ll Never Be.
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