Click here to listen to the interview.
Davy Chou based his film, RETURN TO SEOUL, on the real-life experiences of his friend, Korean-born Laure Badulfe. She was adopted as an infant by a French couple and, as an adult, returned to the land of her birth in order to meet her birth parents. Chou used some incidents of that meeting and subsequent ones as the basis of his film, but used them as a jumping-off point to explore larger issues of identity, grief, and anger.
His protagonist is Freddie (Park Ji-Min), also Korean-born and also adopted as an infant by a French couple. When her planned trip to Japan is sidetracked by a storm, she finds herself in the country of her birth, and, while there, tries to track down the family that gave her up for adoption.
Culturally French and bemused by the subtleties of Korean etiquette, she is befriended by the receptionist at the hotel at which she is staying, setting up a story full of conundrums and psychic wounds as Freddie, who speaks no Korean, navigates the unspoken rules of an unfamiliar culture, and the emotional demands of a family that are all strangers to her.
Chou’s own story starts in France, born to Cambodian parents who had arrived to study in the 1970s, but stayed to escape the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that wiped out most of his family. At age 25, he made his first visit to his family’s homeland, and, discovering his own connections to the once-thriving film industry there, he decided to stay, at least part-time, as a filmmaker and to revitalize that industry. He now divides his time between Cambodia and France.
When we spoke on January 10, 2023, his film had just been shortlisted for the foreign-language Oscar™, but we started the conversation with how he had, and hadn’t, used Badulfe’s story in the film.