Return to Seoul was a very personal film for me. If you’ve followed my work at all, you’ll know that I wrote my most personal piece for Above the Line on two adoption films from 2022, Broker and Return to Seoul. In the event you haven’t or don’t want to read that, I’ll summarize my thesis here.
As a Korean adoptee who was born in Seoul but raised in the United States, I struggled with identity growing up. I was frequently asked, Why are your eyes like that? or Why don’t you look like your parents? I hated myself, but when I saw Broker and then Return to Seoul during last year’s festival circuit, I felt a sense of catharsis that I had never before.
To be clear, Broker and Return to Seoul are very different films, but that’s why I find that the two juxtapose each other perfectly and why they made me feel whole. Broker follows a young mother who’s set to give up her newborn child but wants to go along with a pair of brokers to find the perfect family to raise him. Return to Seoul follows a young woman named Freddie (played by newcomer Park Ji-Min), who takes a spontaneous trip to Seoul in an attempt to find her biological parents. For someone like me, these films made me feel a full journey that I hadn’t experienced (yet) and even forgive my biological mother for giving me up 21 years ago.
I’m so grateful for my wonderful publicists at Allied Global Marketing and Sony Pictures Classics who went out of their way to get me an interview with director Davy Chou and star Park Ji-Min. During our short, but informative chat, the two discuss shooting in Korea and dive deep into the film’s most crucial scene. Return to Seoul is currently playing in select theaters now, and if you can make the trek, I cannot recommend it enough.
Warning: Light spoilers ahead for Return to Seoul.
The Hollywood Handle: I wanted to start with a question for both of you guys. Was the shooting of this film either or both of your first time in Korea?
Davy Chou: For me, for sure. It was not my first time in Korea, but it was the first time for me to shoot a film and it was [a] very specific, different experience and yeah, difficult and challenging sometimes, but so much fun as well.
Park Ji-min: It’s not my first time in Korea because I was born there and I lived there for many years, but [in terms of] shooting a movie, [this] was my first time ever.
THH: Can I ask you both — what was your favorite part of filming in Seoul?
Park: The food, but it’s always about food [smiles].
Chou: I mean it’s only 29 days of shooting. It’s so intense. You’ve been preparing that for like four years, and you only have like two months to shoot. It’s so much intensity, so much work and sometimes you have some moments of grace [where] you feel so happy with [and] when suddenly the right framing, when the right emotions and the right setting and decorations [comes together], and I was feeling grateful that I had that several times in the film. And that, of course, [is] the kind of like thing that you are looking for. So, yeah, those kinds of moments.
The dancing scene, for example, [when] Ji-min is dancing in the vintage bar is one of them — it’s maybe the most spectacular of them — but sometimes it’s just a little line [and] the way they say [it], and then you catch it and just that’s your highlight.
THH: The one scene that really sticks out to me is when Freddie finally meets her biological mother. I think that there’s so much restraint shown and there are two paths you could have taken. There was the path you took, which I appreciated, or there could have been a big confrontation, right? I have a question for each of you — first, I’d love to hear about the writing of that scene and finding that restraint, and then for you, Park, I’d love to hear about your performance in that scene, all the emotions, what did you channel in that scene and what that day of shooting was like.
Chou: So on the writing, I believe the longer the preparation is, the bigger the suspense is, and then suddenly when the emotion comes, it’s gonna be devastating. So that’s the reason why we took a lot of time with the discussion, but it’s also [the] reality of the process that they need to talk a lot before and it’s the way to prepare you.
So I really documented what kind of discussion they (the adoptee and employee at the adoption center) had before [the mother and daughter met], and the woman who’s playing the employee of the [adoption] center is a real employee who used to work with [an] adoption center for four years so she was kind of recreating something and I could see the connection with Freddie. And after when the mother comes, that’s kind of a big challenge for a director to know how you’re gonna shoot that scene because if you fail that scene, the film will just collapse — so I was asking a lot of questions about what will happen.
And actually, that employee, she told me when I was asking like, “Do [the] mother [and] father say something before?” and [she] said sometimes they used to ask like, “Can I touch him or her?” and I found that so devastating, that a mother will ask, “Can I touch my daughter?” So I added that and the shot itself that we eventually had, I just had the idea the day before because I’m not lazy, but let’s say when you prepare your shot list, you work on the beginning and you keep the end for later.
So I was really late on doing that. It was the night before [and] I was like, How the fuck [am] I gonna shoot that? And finally, I find this idea — actually, [it’s] a bit of a shot in the ending of Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach — that kind of inspired me, but I was like feeling insecure, so I cover myself with different angles. But as soon as we shot that, we knew that that would be the shot. So that’s what happened, like keeping her blurred — the mother — and having her as a kind of a ghost presence. It was just obvious that suddenly that was the shot and somehow to stay with Freddie, that that was kind of the key of that moment.
Park: I dunno if you remember, but that day of shooting was really intense.
Chou: Emotionally [intense], as well. But we [also] had so much pressure with the timing.
Park: To be honest, I had so much pressure because I had to [portray] emotions [that] were so deep and in a short time. So yeah, it was a very challenging moment and [a] very emotional moment.
Chou: And actually, you did that scene with the tears, I think more than 10 times or even more than that on that day. Maybe 20 times and [out of] the 20 times, there [were] at least like five or six that were totally magical.
Park: I think in that part I put a lot of myself and my personal life. I’m not going to tell you like about my personal life [smiles], but a lot of things from my personal life [are] in that scene. All the relationships that you can or you can’t have with your parents, or with your mother, the question about the role of parents in a child’s life and yeah, it was really hard because it was really, really personal things that I put in that scene, but yeah, I had to dig so much deep into my feelings to play that scene.
That was exhausting, but I think it was needed to play that scene.
Return to Seoul is playing in select theaters in NY and LA now.