French-Cambodian director Davy Chou’s Un Certain Regard title “Return to Seoul” caused a stir as it was one of the first titles in Cannes’ Official Selection this year to get a US release – via Sony Pictures Classics. This may be a reflection of Chou’s quest for authenticity in a bicultural tale about a woman raised in Europe and her biological family in Korea. Chou spoke to Variety on the movie.
Is it a fact or a story?
It’s completely fictional. But it’s heavily based on the life of a friend of mine, an adoptee from France, who accompanied me when I showed “Golden Slumbers” in Busan in 2011. After two days at the festival, she texted her korean biological father.
I didn’t know anything about these Korean adoption stories. But in Korea, they make the system very easy, as long as you have your case number. And I went with her.
So, there I suddenly had Samgaetang [ginseng and chicken soup that Koreans associate with fertility] with father and grandmother. I immediately felt that it was a scene that should be in a movie.
But your film gives a little twist to these fictional reunions?
You might expect this kind of meeting with family to be a kind of reconciliation or a moment of peace. But things are not going well. And that’s just the beginning of the problems, that’s all I can say without spoilers. What she imagined to be a one-time vacation trip becomes something in which you follow the character over several years.
And how did you feel about this trip?
It sparked something personal inside, much like when I first went to Cambodia in 2009. I was 25. I also thought very naively that I was only doing one thing there and then going back to my family and friends. [in France].
But look at me, now I’m still working between the two countries, producing films in Cambodia. This kind of trip to the roots affects people in a way that has no return.
How did you write the film? In French, English or Korean?
I wrote it in French. Several times, for a few years. But it was only when it was not final, but a good version, that we translated it into Korean. The first translations were quite literal. And it wasn’t until I met the actors, and we started rehearsing in France, that things progressed.
It was a complicated process, but we negotiated time for the readings with the actors in Korea. My artistic advisor took notes and rewrote the dialogue in the screenplay. It was an ongoing process, but I had worked like this before in Cambodia, where again I’m not a native speaker.
I didn’t want the dialogue to be clunky or inaccurate. We have put a lot of effort into achieving this authenticity.
How was it funded and produced?
The main producer is Katia Khazak of Aurora Films who had participated in [Chou’s 2016 film] “Diamond Island”. In Korea, we spent time finding the best way to work with Korean companies. We ended up using the online production system because then we could benefit from the Korean localization incentives.
The film is, technically, mostly French [with a German co-producer]. That’s how I was able to get advances on receipts [subsidy] of the National Center for Cinematography (CNC). A condition for this is that you have a predominantly French dialogue. In the film, the character is French and she meets French-speaking characters in Korea — they are rare, but they exist, I can attest to that.
In fact, the film plays with language. The characters always alternate between French, Korean and English. It’s very much like my own experience of being in Korea, being in Asia, where people are always changing. So we played with it [and were able to meet the requirement].