Past Lives is a human story. The debut from playwright-turned-director Celine Song, the drama encompasses 24 years of a relationship between Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), as the former emigrates from Seoul, and settles in New York City. Hae Sung, meanwhile, stays in Seoul, thinking about his childhood crush, waiting to reconnect. Split into three sections, the film never forces this relationship onto its audience. It unfurls into, in Song’s own words, earned moments of deep intimacy. 

Lee and Yoo give over all of themselves for these performances. Lee inhabits the character of Nora, infusing her with all of her necessary complexities. Across from her is Yoo, often inscrutable, often difficult to read. They’re adults harkening back to their mutual teenage affection, decades of unsaid feelings sitting between them. Song’s camera, with Small Axe cinematographer Shabier Kirchner behind the frame, finds and focuses on these distances in an instant. The distances between two people standing in a park, between two people countries apart, between three people sitting at a bar; all of it becomes essential in Song’s film. 

Past Lives rewards patience, offering its audience an emotional weight only given if they’re willing to commit to this story. The relationship at the center of Song’s script breathes. Seldom static in composition, these people are moving through New York City, which Song makes sure to highlight, with a rare level of emotional connection. But Nora is happily married to Arthur (an understated, warm John Magaro), and their relationship is given its fair due in Past Lives, especially with a bedroom scene that depicts relational anxiety with clear-eyedness that astounded me. Calling it personally reminiscent would be an understatement. 

When they meet, Nora tells him about the concept of In-Yun, a Korean idea about the connectedness between two people. It becomes a common strand within the film, and one of the sticking points long after the credits, also proportionately distanced, have rolled, even if Nora initially jokes about In-Yun as a classic Korean pick-up line. It only serves as another reminder of Song’s ability to recognize and comment on human nature. Her debut is illustrious––more than just another standout debut feature––as a film on the contradictory nature of relationships, love, heartbreak, and time. 

The audience watches these three characters circle one another, the camera sometimes at its own distance. Their worlds are their own, figures silhouetted by gorgeous dusks and scattered skylines. Panes of glass separate the viewers from these people, mysterious until Song allows us to sit in the same room as them. I felt an innate need to understand Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur, to empathize with them, to share in their mutual complexities. Still, the distance was too far. Until it wasn’t. 

Past Lives is a film that has been nestled deep within me since the first time I got the chance to see it. It has that capability, something few movies will ever do. It brings up the past, not necessarily with reverence, but with understanding, gently nudging its audience to do the same. I chatted with Song about the thematic threads of her film, the opposing truths within our lives, and the leaving the audience longing for closeness. 

The Film Stage: The film focuses on the impact and slowness of time, and how it affects relationships. What’re your thoughts on the idea that, over time, feelings don’t change but people do?

Celine Song: I think it’s the most powerful force in our lives, time, and it’s pretty contradictory. Because 12 years is nothing but 12 years is also forever. Two minutes they spend waiting for the Uber can feel like eternity, but it can also feel like a blink of an eye. I think that’s sort of the way that time has to be thought about. There’s still connections and relationships that endure through time. And I think those are really special things in our lives that are ineffable, and hard to describe why, but they’re just people in our lives who endure through all of that. 

And in this case of an enormous distance––the space to see each other––both time and space really keep them apart. But nothing could really keep them apart because they still have this feeling for each other. They have such a friendship, a deep love between them that I think really endures through all of it, regardless of how the time feels. Because 24 years, you can say it’s forever. But of course, when you think about yourself––back when you’re 12––it also feels like it happened yesterday. That’s the amazing contradiction of time. And I think that’s something that felt important to capture in the movie. More than anything. 

You talk about time as a contradictory thing, and it feels as though the film is full of opposing truths. These paradoxes within the relationships of Nora and Hae Sung, as well as Nora and Arthur. How did you attempt to write these opposing truths into the script?

Sometimes it would be as simple as quite, very literally writing the contradiction in the action lines. For example: I would say, “When he smiles, he looks like a kid.” But I’m also describing somebody who was meant to be in their late 30s. So I think it is always this thing where I knew that those markers need to be there, so that we know that we’re trying to capture a kind of impossibility. It also is in the casting of. What really was important to me about Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, and the casting of them is that they both needed to have this contradiction in them, where at one moment they feel like grown-ups, mature adults, but on the other hand, in the next moment, they could both look like kids. When he smiles, I’m suddenly like, “Are you five years old?” There’s something amazing about the way that they move their faces and then the way that they exist. I think it really captures that contradiction and I think that really is at the heart of what this movie had to be. The contradiction of time. 

There’s also the kind of unnatural contradiction that is at the heart of it, with the image of the three of them. It’s so funny, because if you crop out either one of the guys you’re suddenly fully believing that Nora has great chemistry and great connection to the guy that she’s with. There’s some really special chemistry that is happening between Nora and Hae Sung, of course, but there’s also a very different but also intense chemistry that Nora has with Arthur as a married couple. The story itself is about the contradiction of that. And so who is Nora? Well, Nora is somebody who makes sense in both ways, right? She is both of those things: both the kid and grown woman. 

You mentioned the physical space between them, which is so noticeable the first time they meet 24 years later. The camera sits between them, shifting back and forth, which feels reminiscent of the opening credit sequences and the title itself. Can you tell me about setting up that similarity?

I love you asking me about that, because I feel like the way that the title is laid––the typography of it––is meant to represent the distance and the time and space and all of that. And then the contradiction of it, too. It’s meant to be so intentional. Even the title, because it’s part of the image, had to feel as fundamental as the rest of the movie. So I think that it is absolutely true, the way that we’re swinging back and forth from one word to the other, or one face to the other––or one couple to the other––I think is at the heart of where the movie is. 

Something that happens is that there is a little bit of longing in the distance. So even between the Past and the Lives, there is a bit of a longing that you can sense, just because they have this little bit of an extra gap in between. And I think similarly, when Nora and Hae Sung see each other for the first time in Madison Square Park, we were doing this swinging camera where we’re swinging from one of them to the other. The experience that I know I was after with Shabier Kirchner, my DP, is that when you’re with Hae Sung, you wonder what’s going on with Nora. What kind of face is she making? You miss her, right? But then you’re grateful to be with Hae Sung. 

And then the camera drifts over and then we look at Nora and we’re so grateful and happy to see Nora. So we’re looking at Nora; we were so excited. And we’re like “Oh, my God, this is the face Nora is making. This is Nora. We missed Nora.” And then of course, as we are staying on Nora, we’re again starting to miss Hae Sung. So there is a natural way that this movement of the camera can really present a bit of longing in the audience, because it just makes you long for these characters. When you see them you’re just so excited to see them, which is the heart of the scene. The heart of the scene as these two people who are longing for each other, see each other for the first time in person in 24 years. You have to be able to feel the depth and that has to be reflected in the way that the movie is getting made, the movement of the camera.

You shoot these characters through mirrors, windows, doorways, and these other smaller portals. And I wanted to know about the inspiration for that choice, since we often aren’t in the exact same space as them, such as looking at Hae Sung through his hotel room window. 

While the movie is about distances, the movie is also about the way in which that distance reflects upon itself, too. So to me, the way that those decisions were being made is often through really thinking about what the philosophy of the movie is, where the philosophy of the movie is that time is not something that is clear. Time is something that bends; time is something that we can fold with language sometimes. Right? And I think that’s how some of those decisions had to get made. Because I think mirrors and reflections and things like that, they’re a way to open up a world outside the world that we live in. It’s kind of a simple, visual way. That was always something that my DP and I were pursuing. We were pursuing opportunities to really tell the story in a way where it’s not just the beautiful shot. 

Is there a similar thought process when shooting them as silhouettes, which happens throughout the film? It felt like I was constantly reaching towards them as an audience member. 

I think the audience should be able to feel that, and I think that is the thing we wanted to do, because so much of it has to be about the mystery. It’s not true that we can know these characters in a way where it is so intimate, unless you’re welcome to. Of course, there are moments that are really intimate and very deep, which does happen throughout the film. But those moments have to be earned, too. So I didn’t want to overexpose the intimacy that you might have with these characters, because it is not true that these characters are fully available to even each other. 

For example, when I’m shooting the silhouette of them, when they’re waiting in line to go to the Statue of Liberty, that scene is a scene about the opaqueness of who they are to each other in that moment. Hae Sung doesn’t know what conversation Arthur and Nora had last night. And Nora doesn’t know how Hae Sung feels about all this either. They don’t actually understand, or they haven’t fully communicated, what this day is going to be. In that way, it always felt right. 

And I think so much of the conversation about how it should be made is the question of: does it feel right? Because of course I have coverage of them closer up. But I think that the silhouette of them seems to represent where they are emotionally, which is that they are mysteries to each other. So they should be mysteries to us. We should be wanting to know more about how this is going to go. They’re also in a transitional space––they’re trying to get on the boat. So the line is moving. So much of it is about the uncertainty of that scene. I found it strange in the edit whenever I tried to do a close-up of them in that scene, because then it seemed to reveal a little bit too much about them. When in fact, later that night in the bar is when they’re truly revealed.

There’s a part in that late-night conversation between Arthur and Nora in which he says, “You make my life so much bigger. I’m just wondering if I do the same.” I was fascinated by that dialogue. What was the origin of that line?

It’s a very American thought, right? Because Arthur’s American, so he’s thinking about it in a very American way where it’s like, “Well, I get to live my life partly in Korean culture and get to meet somebody and live with somebody who is from another culture. How amazing I get to sort of have my world expand that way. And I wonder if I do the same for you.” To him, he’s just, which is a very American thought, a boring white American guy. But I think that to me, the response is what it’s so much about. She says, “I’m just a girl from Korea.” So the thing is, for Nora, that’s a way to turn the thing around. I feel like it is so easy to think about, like: wow, Korean American, what an expansive idea of what it means to be an American, but actually, for a Korean girl who left Korea to emigrate twice to be in New York City, I think that living in New York City with this white, Jewish-American writer guy can feel as much of an expansion of her world. Right. So I think this American-centric question is turned around when Nora says she’s just a little girl from Korea, just the country bumpkin in that way.

I did this myself––I really came to New York to pursue my dream. We’ve seen her life expand over and over again. She drives into New York City and we see New York City gleaming, and it’s she’s choosing to expand her world the way that Arthur is very grateful to be able to do by being with Nora. It is a reversal to a new perspective. 

New York and Seoul both feature prominently throughout the film, especially within these conversations between characters. The camera looks at the cities as such a large part of the story. It makes me think about what makes a home. How do you think a city becomes a home for these characters and for yourself? 

The movie is about locations. Its locations are a fundamental part of the storytelling. How different Seoul is to how New York is, I think, is actually a part of the important plotline. That’s part of the reason for showcasing the cities themselves. And really treating the cities as another character, I think is an important part of storytelling in this movie, because it is about the different places that the two lead characters live. 

But what makes a city a home to me, it’s always a kind of a thing where I just know. Because I’m an immigrant I don’t really have a really strong sense of “Wow, I really belong to this place in such a fundamental way.” It’s always a choice. You’ll always choose where you belong. And I think that it is as important a decision as choosing what to do for a living, where you live. Of course you may not always choose, but I think that, being an immigrant, it always felt like a choice. When I think about my home, I’ve always felt like it’s where my family is. To me, the home is where my family is, so maybe they’re in a completely different planet. Then I’d be like “Well, that’s my home, because that’s where my parents live. That’s where my sister is. This is where I live with my husband.” Wherever my family is, I would consider home. 

Past Lives is now in limited release and expands wide on June 23.

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