‘Past Lives’ Director Celine Song on How She Made the Ordinary Extraordinary

"This movie lives and dies on the actors’ performances," the Korean director told Jezebel of her excellent semi-autobiographical debut film.

‘Past Lives’ Director Celine Song on How She Made the Ordinary Extraordinary

About a minute into my conversation with writer-director Celine Song, she used a word to describe the plot of her lovely new film Past Lives that rang out like music: “Mundane.”

Indeed, the mundanity of Past Lives had struck me as key to its appeal. I hesitated voicing that to the director for fear of offending her or even misrepresenting my affection for her film—but her own comments over Zoom felt like they could’ve been read from my notebook: “It’s a movie about ordinary people doing something that is extraordinary but mundane.”

Past Lives concerns Nora (Greta Lee), whose family emigrated from Korea to Canada when she was 12. Years later, a childhood friend named Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) gets in touch, and they begin a kind of virtual friendship that becomes increasingly intimate. That’s until Nora, knowing that they won’t be able to see each other for at least a year, cuts things off. She attends a writer’s retreat, meets a white guy named Arthur (John Magaro), and builds a career as a writer. When Hae Sung gets back in touch years later announcing he’s going to visit New York, where Nora now lives, the prospect of seeing what might be her first love (one she’s not necessarily over) quietly rocks her world and lodges her into a state of ambivalence. Has she been given a second chance at destiny or a distraction?

Past Lives is a vibrant movie that calmly examines what Song calls “an epic connection that spans time and space and decades and continents, which I think is also not so uncommon.” The film’s editing is sprightly, its dialogue is direct, and its performances are uniformly pitch perfect. But it’s the kind of movie that, if it were slightly of lesser quality or were one of the components not quite up to snuff, could come off as tedious.

“I feel like there is a question of like: Is the audience interested in something that is mundane?” said Song. “And the only way that they could be is if it is actually connecting to them for real. I think that is, at the end of the day, the thing that I’m pursuing, which is the feeling of it being real in some way. I am the first audience for it. And I’m going to call myself on it if it ever doesn’t feel real to me. It is about keeping myself honest.”

Song has particular expertise there, as Past Lives is based on her own life. Like Nora, Song is a playwright with a filmmaker father who moved from Korea to Canada at age 12. Past Lives is “about that moment where I was sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my husband, and it really was about this feeling of being able to transverse a kind of space like that in that moment.” She likes to call Past Lives an “adaptation” of her life, and says that the filmmaking process rendered the subjective objective.

“I was looking for somebody who feels like Nora, because that’s the only thing you can hope to do—this character has to be built from itself,” she said on casting an actor to play her/not her. “So much of casting Greta was about, well, first of all, she’s a great actress, and this movie lives and dies on the actors’ performances.”

“It live and dies on the actors’ faces, ‘cause we don’t have an action sequence,” she added with a laugh. The second factor that went into casting Lee is what Song calls the “soul match of the character.” She explained, “She has to be this ambitious, strong, amazing woman who also has a side of her that is like a little girl.”

Just as I perked up when Song used the word “mundane,” so did she when I used “clarity” to describe her storytelling. “That’s the word that guides me through like all of my work,” she said. The greatest example of the movie’s clarity that struck me is the handling of the Korean concept of in-yun, which Nora explains about halfway into Past Lives. “There is a word in Korean: in-yun. It means providence or fate. But it’s specifically about relationships between people,” says the character. “I think it comes from Buddhism, and reincarnation. It’s an in-yun if two strangers even walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush, because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of in-yun over 8,000 lifetimes.” This concept of fate—specifically, which man in her life constitutes Nora’s fate—could have come off as vague or half-baked without Song’s articulation via her characters and their behavior.

The directness of the characters in Past Lives is refreshing—at one point, observing Nora’s predicament of being pulled from opposite ends of the globe, Arthur says, “I was just thinking about what a good story this is… Childhood sweethearts who connect 20 years later, and later realize they were meant for each other… In the story I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” For Song, clarity bought the opportunity for intelligible dialogue-free moments, as well. “If there is clarity built into the silence, then you can really experience the silence, knowing exactly what the silence is about and what is happening and how to feel about it as an audience member,” she said, citing a scene after Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur spend a night eating and drinking together. “Those silences could not possibly be the felt in the way that I wanted to be felt if we didn’t have such clear conversation in the bar, of what the mystery and what the heartbreak and what the joy of the silence could be,” said the director.

Past Lives’ protagonist thrives in a liminal space, between Korean and American cultures, between the two men she’s emotionally connected to, between appreciating her life and wondering if there’s something better for her out there. The complexity and contradictions yield a story that passes Song’s gut test: It feels real. This maintains through the final, bittersweet frame, of which Song says of her protagonist/fictional counterpart, “She’s crying, but also it is a happy ending.”

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