Park Ji-min had a surprising amount of input on her debut role.
The sculptor and painter, then 33 years old, had no plans of becoming an actor when she was introduced by a mutual friend to Davy Chou, the French-Cambodian director behind the 2016 Cannes drama “Diamond Island.” Chou had spent two-and-a-half years working on his next script based on the experiences of a friend, some of which he witnessed first hand. “Return to Seoul” (previously titled “All the People I’ll Never Be”) is about a terse 24-year-old French adoptee named Freddie, who travels to South Korea and ends up tracking down her biological parents, a reunion both parties are forced to navigate despite not speaking the same language. While Park isn’t adopted herself, her family moved to Paris from Korea when she was 9, so there was at least some overlap of perspective and experience. Park and Chou’s initial meeting over coffee in Belleville was simply predicated on the filmmaker gaining further cultural insight, over a chat that unexpectedly lasted three hours. Neither could have foreseen that this would result, first, in an artistically challenging partnership, and second, in one of the most riveting performances of 2022.
“I was like, wow, if that girl can act — which I didn’t have the proof of yet — I think she’s gonna be the one,” Chou said, of their first meeting. The realization wasn’t immediate for either party, and it took a lot of convincing and negotiating over the details of the script. But before casting Park, the first step for Chou was emailing her after their discussion, and floating his strange spark of an idea to see if she’d even be interested in a camera test, let alone in playing the part. “At first, I was like, ‘Why?’” Park recalled.
The director’s initial instincts about Park were proven correct when she sent in a self-taped audition a few weeks later. “Strangely enough, when she took her phone and said, ‘Hi, it’s Freddie,’ I talked to my casting director and said, ‘I don’t know why, but I believe in it,’” Chou said. “When she said, ‘Hi, it’s Freddie,’ I saw my character.”
Chou had the opportunity to hone these instincts while casting “Diamond Island,” whose ensemble was also made up of first-time actors, though this wasn’t his intended plan. An avowed admirer of trained method actors like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro, his eventual approach was born out of pragmatism, owing to what he saw as the melodramatic status quo for professional Cambodian actors accustomed to appearing in soap operas. For his intended brand of naturalism, he had to not only cast non-professionals, but had to develop a sense of trust with them during rehearsals, for an art form that inherently requires feeling vulnerable and exposed.
Part of this process involved filming each rehearsal so the actors could get used to the camera’s presence. Luckily for Chou, Park swiftly grew accustomed to the ritual of performing for a lens hovering near one’s face as crewmembers look on. “I think she never felt shy with the camera,” Chou said. “She just forgot it. That’s the real talent that she has, this specific thing with natural born actors that as soon as we say ‘action,’ they forget everything else. The acting, which is not ‘acting’ for her, is digging into the situation and the emotion, truly, without thinking of something else. So I never remember her even eyeing at the camera, as every non-professional will do. She never did that.”
Park’s explanation for her immersion is also something that made her perfect for the part: “I think I have a very strong survival instinct.” As an Asian woman raised in a largely white, European society, she brought her own understanding of the way Freddie might navigate the world — especially the character’s minor interactions with men, and her responses to their impositions — the initial framing of which posed a problem for Park.
Before she agreed to participate, she first presented Chou with some of her concerns about his writing, including questions about Freddie’s behavior. The character has a fierceness to her, a guarded façade born from abandonment, which leads her to push people away. But the way this manifested in Chou’s script was initially at odds with Park’s perspective and personal experience, which led to several months of intense, page-by-page discussion. Chou initially enjoyed this challenge, but eventually, it stopped being fun.
“I could feel that the process of debating started to be a bit painful for her and for me,” he recalled. “She didn’t accept that I was only using intellectual arguments to try to defend and justify, and she was more and more frustrated that I wouldn’t listen. And maybe what she was saying was more true than what I was thinking, because of her opposing experience as a Asian woman living in France. I had to stop thinking to debate, and just start to listen, and to accept that what she had to say had to be integrated into the script somehow.”
To have his outlook challenged so directly and rigorously is something Chou likened to “a kind of brutal violence” — the uneasy act of setting ego aside and compromising one’s artistic vision. “But it was definitely for the best of the film,” he added. “For the best of the characterization, for the best of Ji-min feeling empowered to play Freddie, but very honestly speaking, for the best of me as a human being.”
Looking back at this unconventional process, in which a first-time actor has such a whirlwind presence on her very first production, Chou said: “Ji-min changed the rules of the game.”
For Park, Chou’s eventual willingness to listen was a key factor in agreeing to participate. The results of her challenges can be traced throughout the film, from the way Freddie first interacts with Seoul locals (who Chou said also added to the scene by introducing Korean drinking games), to the way she struggles against a patriarchal gaze, to her costumes in several scenes. A point of contention between Park and Chou was Freddie’s “femme fatale” appearance in the movie’s second act, during which she adopts a new form of identity after failing to reconcile with her birth family. She was originally meant to wear a short skirt, but upon Park’s suggestion, Chou reimagined this version of the character in the mold of Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road” — down to Freddie’s memorable, warrior-esque leather jacket, which Park sourced herself.
It was important for Park that she feel comfortable in the role, even though Freddie’s mindset is one of intense discomfort with her cultural duality. Acting was certainly brand new to Park, but her years working on artistic installations had primed her for the internal process of playing a character who withholds by nature, rather than projecting (which might be easier for a novice actor). “I think it helped me a lot, actually to go deep inside my feelings, and my emotions,” Park said. “I think artists create a new language of our own, to discuss with the world.”
But this transition, from sculpting and painting to performing on screen, also came with its own challenge of self-perception. As much as Park was still an artist, she was now the canvas too. The art was her physicality. “Of course, in my art forms, I can show it, but I think it’s very different to show it with your body, with your voice, with your face. But it was really, really interesting, and I’m very grateful to Davy actually, for letting me dig into my deep emotions.”
For Park, the role became an opportunity to channel what she describes as her “deep, deep anger,” perhaps the emotion one might first associate with Freddie. Park’s performance is raw and vulnerable, rife with an angst that is, on occasion, uncomfortable to watch. She creates something both intimate and starkly familiar, while tapping into the movie’s lens on culture and how it shapes identity. “I’m full of paradoxes because of my history,” she said. “And I think I also have those very extreme feelings inside me. Emotional paradoxes help me a lot, to play.”
Her choice of words doesn’t refer exclusively to performance. When asked the question “What is acting?,” Park paused to consider, then replied, “I think it’s to play like a child. You know, not to think intellectually about it, about the scripts, but to feel with your instincts, what’s happening in that moment with other people. And to feel with your body first, because I think it’s important to not forget the body. Because the body is here, and it’s the main tool to feel things.”
Her answer would have been illuminating enough had it ended there. But she also touched on another element of performance art whose importance is being increasingly stressed these days in the public discourse: collaboration.
“I think everybody knows that a movie is not done by one person,” Park said. “So I don’t forget about all those other actors who were in the movie. There were some extraordinary professional actors in the Korean parts. And I think, also, playing is not playing alone. Acting is like connecting with other people. And I think it’s so important to connect with the energy of people who are surrounding you. Also, I think it’s really important to be generous. Because if you don’t give, you can’t receive.”