When writer-director Celine Song found herself sitting at a bar sandwiched between two men from vastly different parts of her life, it was there, sitting in this convergence of worlds, that Song, a mainstay in New York theater as a playwright, found the inspiration for what would become her filmmaking debut, Past Lives. Appropriately, the film opens with its protagonist, Nora, sitting in between her husband and her first love, a mirror image of Song’s memory.
“I was sitting there between these two men who I know love me in different ways, in two different languages and two different cultures. And I’m the only reason why these two men are even talking to each other,” Song recalls. “There’s something almost sci-fi about it. You feel like somebody who can
transcend culture and time and space and language.”
It would be a mistake, though, to read this dynamic as an early scene of a melodramatic love triangle. Instead, Song turned this seed of experience into a quietly gutting film, concerned with something far more emotionally complex: the parts of a self that we lose as we become the people we are and the
ways our lives are shaped by those we love.
It all makes for a remarkably ambitious canvas for Song’s debut, but also a deeply personal story that she knew only she could direct. Song’s first film has the instincts and control of an artist with a precise vision of the story’s every conflicted, emotional note
“It’s about, on a very simple level, what it is like to exist as a person,” Song says. “Or what it is like to choose a life that you live.” More specifically, what that choice mean for Nora, and what happens when the other choice, her phantom life in a sense, is suddenly staring at her through a computer screen, or across a park in New York City.
“If Past Lives is a film about adults trying their best to behave like adults—no dramatic professions of love, no teary-eyed fights, no villains—this isn’t to say it isn’t a film that deals in sweeping emotional sentiment. But for Song, these ideas must be rooted in naturalism and a rigorous authenticity. Or to put it another way: “It’s important that the movie is not seen as a movie about dating. It’s a movie about love,” Song explains.
Past Lives, at once strikingly intimate and bracing in its scope, is broken into three parts spanning countries and decades: first with Nora (Moon Seung-ah) as a young girl in Korea, developing an early bond with her best friend, Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min), before she immigrates with her family to Toronto; then, following Nora in her early 20s (Greta Lee) as she re-connects virtually with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo); and finally, more than a decade later, when Hae Sung visits Nora, now a playwright married to an author, Arthur (John Magaro), in New York.
Celine Song’s play Endlings received its world premiere in 2019 at the American Repertory Theater and had its New York premiere in 2020 at the New York Theatre Workshop. She has been a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and a semifinalist for the American Playwriting Foundation’s Relentless Award. Celine also wrote on the first season of Amazon’s “Wheel of Time.”
The simple, poignant tragedy in the film is also its animating idea: that choosing one life means losing another
“I think that there’s a piece of yourself that you leave behind in the place you left,” says Song, who like Nora, emigrated from Korea at the age of 12 for Toronto, before moving again to New York in her 20s.
It is a strangely ineffable and visceral human truth, one that Song’s film manages to capture—via its deeply grounded intimacy, its restraint, its tender, moving form—with a cutting emotional acuity. Even now, Song struggles to explain this feeling her film encapsulates, which is to say the feeling of life.
Past Lives fictionalizes and heightens the drama of Song’s own reunion with her former sweetheart, and while she notes there was nothing explicitly “romantic” about the visit, there was an underlying truth—one that is more overt in the film— that she was reluctant to face in real life. “I was in denial, he was in denial,” Song said. “My husband said it from a month ahead. He was like, ‘What are you talking about? He’s coming to see you because he’s in love with you.’”
“It’s like you’re a donut,” she says. “You’re already formed with a little hole inside of you. My husband, when he fell in love, he fell in love with the donut. And it’s not like I think about being a donut as a sad thing. It just makes me who I am, that’s my shape. And my partner, anybody’s partner who is loving somebody, has to love that person as that shape. And then, imagine the donut hole flying twelve hours to come visit.”
Yet Song was also adamant about turning away from the tropes of love triangle histrionics. “The very flat interpretation of the movie would be: which guy is she going to go with?” she says. “The film is about real people. The boring version is about a war between these characters. But it’s more complex as to why these two men love Nora. Both of them have to respect Nora for them to love her well.”
Nora, in other words, is her own person, rather than an idea sketched out by the binary of which man she chooses. “She so certain about what she wants,” Lee says. “We see love stories, romantic dramas where the woman at the center is lost in her desires, and channels life solutions and projects them on different men. This is not that.”
What often defines drama in films and in storytelling, Song notes is adults behaving like children. Past Lives is a film, conversely, “about three people that are doing their very best to be adults,” Song says. “None of them argue, none of them shout. Just through the power of their love and respect for each other, they’re somehow able to get through this very intense reunion, doing their best to not hurt each other.”
When Greta Lee first read the script for Past Lives, her reaction could largely be boiled down to: “Who is this person? How dare she do this?”
Lee recalls the intense emotions it evoked. She hadn’t been particularly familiar with Celine Song’s work, but what she read cut straight through her. The script presented a vehicle for Lee to become a front-and-center lead, rich with nuance and grounded humanity, in a way she never had been before in a feature film.
“You have to be a soul match before anything else,” Song says.
Love exists not as a neat savior or as one right or wrong path in Past Lives, but rather as the genuine form that manifests in our lives, complicated and enriched by time and movement and mutual understanding. Similarly, it would be a mistake to consider In-Yun, a Korean concept about fate—specifically, the destined connection between two people that have been informed by countless other connections with each other in past lives—that is threaded throughout the film, as some sort of romantic notion about the battle to find one’s soul mate.
(“When you talk about destiny in Western cultures, it is very much a thing that one needs to do something about,” Song notes. “But often Eastern cultures, when they talk about In-Yun, it is not necessarily an actionable item. Sometimes it is something that just comes to you.”)
Song anticipates people who watch the film might, nevertheless, see the concept as shorthand for who Nora’s true soul mate is. She anticipates viewers will identify with Nora, or Arthur, or Hae Sung—with their own versions of what any of them should or shouldn’t have done, with what the film says about homesickness, or truly knowing someone you love or the existential longing that comes with living a life. If there are 50 people in the room, she wants there to be 50 different reasons each of them has cried and 50 different ways they’ve seen themselves in this story of love. In all those ways of watching her film, she says, “There is actually no wrong answer, except for the one where you don’t feel connected at all.”