‘Return to Seoul’ Used Its Score to Build the Ultimate Indie Sad Girl
There are a few different languages in Davy Chou’s “Return to Seoul” — French, Korean, a smattering of English — but perhaps the most important is music. The film’s initial third follows protagonist Freddie’s (Park Ji-min) first trip to Korea as a young adult after her adoption by a French family, where she almost stumbles into meeting her biological father (Oh Kwang-rok); throughout the film but especially in this section, Chou emphasizes the failure of translation to express the fullness of what a person wants to say, as Freddie’s biological aunt (Kim Sung-young) softens both Freddie’s sharply defined boundaries and her father’s boundless longing for connection.
There’s something tragically incomplete about Freddie: She’s French but with a piece of herself missing, Korean but alienated from that culture. Never truly home anywhere she goes, she rages against her sense of abandonment. It’s like Chou turned a boygenius song into a character.
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Freddie can only assert her identity in its wholeness when she to music because she’s no longer constrained by what she can (or can’t) say out loud. Chou uses song cues throughout the film, especially the plaintive Korean pop ballad “Petals” by Lee Jung Hwa, but he also leans on composers Jérémie Arcache and Christophe Musset to score key, brief moments of articulation, where Freddie breaks away from everyone around her and gets to be herself. Arcache and Musset needed to build a score that, in some wordless alchemical way, reveals who Freddie is and what she really wants.
But it was a truth the composers grappled with in order to find. “When we saw the footage from the shoot, nothing was like we had imagined it would be [while reading the script],” Musset told IndieWire. “It was not easy to decide if we wanted the music to illustrate the internal battle and boiling conflict [Freddie] has or if we wanted the music to be gentle and tender and encouraging with the character. We tried a lot of different things.”
Complicating the choice of whether to score Freddie’s inner turmoil or offer a sonic version of the peace she’s seeking was calibrating how prickly and unlikeable a protagonist she would be. Freddie goes from a hot mess in a hostel to a defense contractor over the course of the film, but she is more than a little self-destructive throughout. “The character’s never [presented] in just one style,” Arcache told IndieWire. “It’s a lot of metamorphosis and evolutions. From Part 1 to Part 3, it’s very different.”
Musset and Arcache passed ideas back and forth to find a throughline across time and Freddie’s evolving relationship with Korea. The song they finally arrived at, “Anybody,” is gentle and a little uncomfortable, a mix of Freddie’s wounded heart and how she presents herself. They aimed for a score that embraced that contradiction, most especially when Freddie dances at a bar on the last night of her first trip to Korea.
“When she dances to that song, it’s a liberation dance. It’s absolutely the moment we actually feel her and see who she is underneath the layers of all her identities. There’s something there. There’s a heart that’s beating and there’s someone dancing, before all the layers of identity,” Musset said.
Getting at who Freddie truly is led the composers to avoid traditional song structure. “Anybody” only has one verse and a chorus, followed by a bridge and an outro. “It doesn’t make any sense. But with the images, it all makes sense,” Musset said. “It’s an expansive way to think about score. There’s not just one style to write in, because the character is not just one style,” Arcache added.
While shooting the scene, Park danced to New Order’s “Love Bizarre Triangle,” and then Arcache reverse-engineered the rhythm of the score’s track to her movements, to make it feel perfectly tailored to Freddie’s longing. But the song’s unusual construction withholds any sense of closure. “It’s not a very coherent sound, but it raises the same questions as the movie does,” Musset said. “I don’t have answers, but the film articulates the questions.”
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