Un Certain Regard title “Return to Seoul” from French-Cambodian director Davy Chou caused an early stir by being one of the first Official Selection titles from this year’s Cannes to secure a U.S. release — through Sony Pictures Classics. That may be a reflection of Chou’s quest for authenticity in a bi-cultural tale about a European-raised woman and her biological family in Korea. Chou talked to Variety about the film.
Is this fact or fiction?
It’s totally fictional. But it’s strongly based on the life of a friend of mine, a French adoptee, who happened to accompany me when I was showing “Golden Slumbers” in Busan back in 2011. After two days hanging out at the festival, she texted her Korean biological dad.
I didn’t know anything about these stories of Korean adoption. But in Korea they make the system very easy, as long as you have your file number. And I went along with her.
So, there I was suddenly having Samgaetang [ginseng and chicken soup that Koreans associate with fertility] with the father and grandmother. I immediately felt that that’s a scene that should be in a film.
But your film gives this fictional reunion something of a twist?
You might expect this kind of meeting with the family to be some kind of reconciliation or a moment of peace. But things don’t go well. And that’s just the beginning of the problems is all I can say without spoilers. What she imagined would be a one-time holiday trip, becomes something in which we follow the character over several years.
And how did you feel about this journey?
It triggered some personal thing inside, much like when I first went to Cambodia in 2009. I was 25. I was also very naively thinking that I just do one thing there, and then go 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 journey to the roots affects people in a way that there is no return.
How did you write the film? In French, English or Korean?
I wrote it in French. Many times over, for a couple of years. But only when it was not final, but a good version, did we translate it into Korean. The first translations were quite literal. And it was only when I met the actors, and we started rehearsing in France, that it advanced.
It was a complicated process, but we negotiated time for readings with the actors in Korea. My artistic advisor took notes and rewrote the dialogue into the script. It was an ongoing process, but I had previous experience of working like that in Cambodia, where again I’m not a native speaker.
I didn’t want the dialogue to be awkward or inaccurate. We put in a lot of effort to reach that authenticity.
How was it financed and produced?
The main producers are Charlotte Vincent and Katia Khazak from Aurora Films who had been on [Chou’s 2016 film] “Diamond Island.” In Korea, we spent time to figure out the best way of working with Korean companies. We ended up using the line production system and executive producer MereCinema in Korea because then we could benefit from Korean Film Council (Kofic) location incentives.
The film is, technically, majority French [with German and Belgian minority co-producers]. That’s how I could get the avances sur recettes [subsidy] from the French National Film Centre (CNC). One condition for that is that you need to have majority French dialogue. In the film, the character is French and she meets some French-speaking characters in Korea — they are rare, but they do exist, I can testify.
In fact the film plays with language. The characters are always switching between French, Korean and English. That’s very like my own experience of being in Korea, being in Asia, where people are always switching around. So, we played with that [and were able to meet the requirement].