Filmmaker Celine Song on her exceptional, unconventional love story Past Lives
With a background in theatre, Celine Song came out of nowhere to deliver her first feature film, Past Lives. The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year to rave reviews and is being distributed by A24, who’ve helped reshape the face of contemporary American independent cinema with releases like Moonlight, Uncut Gems and last year’s Best-Picture Oscar winner, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Inspired partly by events that happened to Song, who was born in Korea and immigrated to Canada before permanently settling in New York to become a writer, Past Lives is an unusual love story. For decades, it charts the almost-romance between Nora (Greta Lee) and her childhood crush, Hae Sung (Yoo Teo), and how fate keeps drawing them together and pulling them apart.
The film feels lived in, reflective in form and also narrative. It opens with the three main characters, Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur, Nora’s husband (played John Magaro), sitting at a bar. The room is opulent and rich in tone. Nora turns towards Hae Sung, her husband, sitting silently behind them. A voiceover from two strangers across the bar speculates, ‘Are Nora and Hae Sung lovers or siblings?’ ‘Who is the man behind them?’ ‘How do they relate to each other?’ As Song explains in our interview, the answer is only clear once we go on the entire journey with them.
Sensitively drawn with an epic, romantic scale, Past Lives is a film about an intangible relationship that is neither a friendship nor a romance. It’s heavy with longing and desire and draws in themes related to belonging. It’s anchored by an incredible, star-making performance by Greta Lee — who captures in equal measure Nora’s yearning for Hae Sung and the prickly battle to become an artist. How much does the person we love shape our destiny? How does it shape who we are and where we should be?
We spoke with director Celine Song over the phone.
Justine Smith: Past Lives opens with a voiceover speculating how the three main characters, sitting at a bar together at 4 a.m., might relate to each other. Are they friends? Lovers? How did this moment come together?
Celine Song: It was the first scene that I ever wrote. It’s the scene that I talked to Greta the most about. I was sitting there with my childhood sweetheart and husband in this East Village bar. I was looking around and saw patrons in the bar or the people serving us drinks, and they were looking at us. We were such a weird trio. Also, we were speaking in two different languages. Clearly, these two guys didn’t know each other, but I knew both of them. It’s a funny dynamic. It was a lovely dynamic, too, but people weren’t sure what was going on. I remember making eye contact and thinking, ‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’
Second, I thought, what if I did take the time to tell you? Part of breaking the fourth wall in that way implicates the audience. It’s meant to be confrontational. What do you think? You’re welcoming them into the mystery of the movie. And the mystery of this movie is about the mystery of life, which is that you don’t know sometimes. Not all human connections have a word that can describe them. Sometimes it is totally ineffable. Sometimes it is not at all about something that you can really name. With Hae Sung and Nora, for example, it’s unclear who they are to each other. You can’t really say it in a word. You can’t really say they’re exes. They’re not, really. They held hands as children once, but that’s really it. They’re not really lovers. These are not really the right ways to think about their relationship. So the only way to really answer the question of ‘Who are they to each other?’ is by living through the events of their lives until they are — and the viewers are — back to that bar. And by the time they were back in that bar near the end of the film, the audience comes through this journey with us and they’re able to see the three of them and have some answer, or have some sense of what the mystery is, to really understand who they are to each other, without even using words.
And that’s always been the structure of the film.
JS: You have a bit of an unusual trajectory. Past Lives is your first film. You’ve never worked in TV or made any short films. You do have a background in theatre, though, and what’s immediately noticeable in Past Lives is the importance of blocking and how the characters relate to each other within the space of the frame. How did you adapt the art of blocking from the stage to the screen? One scene in particular that struck me was when Hae Sung and Nora are at Coney Island in front of the carousel. They’re not too close, but it almost feels like the ride behind them creates this movement drawing them closer together on an emotional level.
Celine Song: The story and character will be at the heart of it. That’s really what allowed for that leap to happen because the thing that I did know how to do through theatre is story and character. There are, of course, a ton of things that I didn’t know how to do until I did it in filmmaking, but those things were much easier to learn. So when it came to blocking, a similar thing is true because so much of theatre blocking is about making sense. In theatre, space is abstract space. (Making sense) doesn’t necessarily mean it is purely logical or realistic. Sometimes, in theatre, it is about the theoretical space or poetic space.
When it came to blocking and figuring out where actors would stand and cameras would be, I was looking for what made the most sense. Sometimes it would just be the actors moving around. Other times, we would move them around until it made sense. The feeling of making sense in film, though, is different; it’s more about realism. It’s a little less theoretical and a little more tangible. The character and story dictate how distance works, such as how far they sit together.
In that scene with the carousel, they are together for the first time in 24 years, so they have a longing to get to know each other a little better. They’re not going to sit right next to each other, right? But they’re also not sitting so far as they don’t like each other. They like each other but don’t think they can be too close. The characters dictate it at that moment. It’s also about the actors and what they’re feeling. Do they feel too far or too close? That’s important to me, too.
JS: The film is based partly on your life, a kind of autofiction inspired by things that happened to you rather than biographical. Aside from that, what other inspirations are you drawing on?
Celine Song: I’m a big reader, watcher and seer of many things. I couldn’t say they didn’t have an influence. What really mattered to me, though, especially as a first-time filmmaker, was for the filmmaking not to be an homage or a direct reflection of another film. But, of course, I needed filmmaking solutions to some questions. How are we going to shoot this? One thing I could always do was to draw on other films and rip from it what I wanted.
For example, with the speakeasy scene, I made everybody watch My Dinner with Andre. It’s a film that just feels like a conversation, then over time, it starts to slip into something deeper and deeper. The way that deepening works was what I pulled for my movie. It worked like that. The movie wants to have its own language, and the movie wants to be made in a unique way for it to be a movie that stands on its own.
Past Lives (directed by Celine Song)
Past Lives opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 16.
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