‘Past Lives’: how Celine Song made the year’s best indie movie

Soft and subtle, the South Korean-Canadian playwright's debut film will leave you an emotional wreck

There’s a moment late in Celine Song’s new film Past Lives that will take your breath away. The delicate semi-romantic drama, one of the best movies of the year, follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who meet as mutual crushes growing up in South Korea and are separated when Nora moves to Canada at age 12. Past Lives checks in on them at 12-year intervals, which includes both a re-connection via the internet and an in-person reunion after Nora has moved to New York and married a fellow writer. Late in the movie, under circumstances we won’t spoil here, Song briefly and wordlessly cuts away to another time period with a visceral emotional clarity that may open a floodgate of tears.

Months after seeing the film, we still have to steel ourselves to keep it together while asking Song, the film’s writer-director, whether that moment was always in the script (it was) and how it achieves its precise effect (Song credits her production designer Grace Yun and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner for working through the logistics). Though Song can speak to the technical aspects of the production, she warmly goes beyond physical matters to discuss her film’s quiet power, which at times resembles science fiction in the way it traverses time with a cosmic yet relatable sense of fate.

“We all have this amazing power  to see another part of a person’s story in a different time or space”

“The physics of time and space are unchangeable,” she says as we sit opposite each other in the New York library of beloved indie studio A24 (Midsommar, Everything Everywhere All At Once). We’re surrounded by shelves of DVDs and Blu-rays – arranged, appropriately enough, in chronological release-date order, neatly collapsing A24’s decade-long history of cinematic success. (When she first enters the room, we share a geek-out about this sorting system.) “We have to go through time and space at the same speed as anyone else,” Song continues. “But you can sometimes exist outside, or underneath, or above it, just by being able to imagine someone you knew as a child.”

She explains, maintaining eye contact with a steadiness we quickly come to think of as her trademark: “I didn’t know you when you were 12, but if you’re talking to somebody who [did], and I asked that person, ‘can you believe it, he used to be 12?’ – immediately you know that person could be immediately transported to that time, and they’d be able to see you as a 12-year-old. That’s the amazing power we all have, to see another part of a person’s story in a different time or space.” She’s right, and it gives us a chill just hearing her talk about it.

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Nora, played by Greta Lee in ‘Past Lives’. CREDIT: A24/StudioCanal

A lot of people will get chills watching Past Lives. In the US, it’s become an enduring arthouse version of a summer smash (the UK will have to wait until September 7 to see it). It recently outlasted the Spider-Man animation Across The Spider-Verse to become the longest-running current theatrical engagement in New York City, with 14 weekends and counting at the beloved Angelika cinema in the West Village, across town from where Song used to live.

“I love that it’s still playing all day!” she says excitedly – referring to the fact that Past Lives still has a screen’s worth of showtimes to itself, rather than sharing its auditorium with a newer film. She hasn’t been to see it with a paying audience, but that doesn’t mean she’s not paying attention: “I do this thing where I look [online] at how many people are there and where they’re sitting. So I can pretend to choose seats and see how they’re filled. I love seeing, like, five people seeing it alone, or six couples. You can see the 9:50am screening, and see there’s literally one person sitting there, and another person sitting there. That’s so special! I hope they talk afterwards! Or maybe they just walk away and never see each other again…”

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‘Past Lives’ follows two childhood friends as they take separate but intertwining paths through life. CREDIT: A24/StudioCanal

Like Nora in the film, Song was born in South Korea, moved to Canada at the age of 12, and wound up in New York City as a graduate student and, later, a working writer. Her parents are both artists – mum is an illustrator and graphic designer, while dad is a filmmaker – and she applied to both film and theatre courses before deciding on playwrighting at Columbia. In other words, her love of theatre didn’t lead her into the film world; she was already there as a movie fan growing up in suburban Toronto.

“When you’re growing up, you just love awesome movies. I’d love, like, Equilibrium,” she says with a grin. To be clear, the filmmaker behind one of this summer’s most sensitively rendered relationships is citing a 2002 sci-fi action movie where Christian Bale performs “gun kata” (martial arts featuring firearms). “Or The Matrix, or The Godfather, or Pulp Fiction,” she adds, before landing on Quentin Tarantino’s World War II adventure Inglourious Basterds as a movie that made her want to make movies. “The complete irreverence of it felt so freeing to me in a way. Watching it and going, ‘you can do that, you can change history, you can treat history like it doesn’t matter at all. You can just burn it all down!’”

“Growing up, I loved ‘Equilibrium’, ‘The Matrix’, ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Pulp Fiction'”

Though Nora doesn’t rhapsodise about Tarantino in Past Lives, it’s still easy enough to conflate the character with her creator, given their similar backgrounds. Song admits the film has its roots in her own experiences, and then vividly describes the process of how those experiences are remade into art: “The initial thing is so subjective, and so personal, and so inspired by my life, and then it’s turned into a script, which is a fully objective thing. And you don’t think about the structure of your life, or the character and story of your life. You live your life! So it’s turning a subjective thing into an object.” But as actors and other collaborators – “hundreds of people!” she’s quick to point out – work on a project, it shapeshifts, and then continues to change when it gets in front of an audience. “It’s amazing to see it become subjective again.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Past Lives is how it feels plugged into the realities of our digital world, without either bemoaning that state, or exalting over our 21st-century connectivity. The specific conditions of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship (or sometimes lack thereof) is changed by technology, while remaining immutable in its basics. So it’s not surprising to learn that Song has long been interested in digital media. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, she was commissioned by the New Theater Workshop to put together an online performance. Inspired by her interest in watching gamers duke it out on livestreams, she mounted a production of 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s The Seagull within the life-simulation game The Sims. “I always felt it was a Chekovian game,” she notes, drawing a connection between the daily tasks of the game characters and the concise realism of Chekov’s work, which often prioritises character over plot. “All you’re trying to do is live – to live fully.”

Past Lives
Teo Yoo plays Hae Sung opposite Greta Lee. CREDIT: A24/StudioCanal

Her interest in The Sims points to Song’s specific combination of openness to the internet, and memory of a pre-digital world. “I’m in that spot, generationally, where I’m on the cusp. I was born in 1988 and it wasn’t a given growing up that you had the internet. At some point you made the transition to being a person who was on the internet. So I’m able to understand and communicate with people who live fully analog, but I also know how to speak to people who are fully digital. And I think that is such a magical thing about being born around this time, and I think that’s true of a lot of millennials.”

Past Lives tells that very millennial story of digital transition without making a fuss about it; it remains, first and foremost, a movie about two people, though it’s not exactly a love story. Song notes that this in-between quality is why the movie brings up the Korean concept of in-yeon, the idea that we meet people in other lives, and those we become romantically involved with are those we’ve met repeatedly across many lifetimes. So many years later, Hae Sung really “doesn’t know anything about [Nora],” she says, “but he knows her in this one particular way that her husband can’t access.” She likens their tentative return to each other as less a reunion than a resurrection.

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The strangest and most transporting thing about talking to Song about all of this is that it feels like rewatching her movie – not in the sense that she’s recounting it scene by scene or quoting her own work, but in her infectious enthusiasm for what that work evokes: a heightened awareness of how our memories shape our perception of time. That sense of perspective comes across when she describes something as simple as an old haunt or apartment long after leaving it: “It’s probably gone in every meaningful sense of the word, but it lives in me. That can make you feel powerless in some ways, but you can also think of it as a very powerful thing. This is eternal, this is forever. It can all go away, and you can die, and the experiences you have in it are forever.”

For now, she wants to have more experiences in her current field. “I want to keep making movies,” she says, describing her current success as a honeymoon phase giving her creative energy, but demurring on what specifically might follow Past Lives. Instead, she offers a hypothetical: “Maybe 20 years from now, [when] we’re talking about like, my 10th movie or my 20th movie, and I’ll be like, ‘remember when we first met?’ And I’ll just see you right here. And I think that’s what’s amazing about how we can live through time and space.” Just like that, she explains how a small, talky movie can contain the vastness of the universe.

‘Past Lives’ is released in UK cinemas by StudioCanal today (September 7)

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