January 17, 2024

Celine Song's Past Lives: Love, Loss, and Identity

Less a love story than a meditation on what-ifs, the film has propelled its debut director to a rarefied strata of acclaim – and away from her own past life.

Past Lives opens with a conundrum. A trio perches at a bar: a woman and two men. They’re loosened by wine and conversation, and yet a faint melancholy floats through the air. They trade furtive glances and longing stares; it’s difficult to tell who’s looking at who. Soon we’ll find out who they are: playwright Nora (Greta Lee), her American husband Arthur (John Magaro) and Hae Sung, her childhood sweetheart from South Korea (Teo Yoo). For now, though, all we hear is a background conversation between a pair of perplexed onlookers trading guesses into their relationship. Are they co-workers? Tourists? Lovers? Which guy is she with?  

This might be the most explicitly autobiographical moment in Past Lives, a film which follows Nora as she reconnects with Hae Sung multiple times across multiple decades and continents. Less a love story than a meditation on what-ifs, it has propelled its debut director Celine Song to a rarefied strata of acclaim, accruing both ravereviews and early, frantic Oscars buzz since its Sundance premiere earlier this year. The idea for the filmcame to Song when she too was sitting in an East Village cocktail joint, sandwiched between an old flame from Seoul, who spoke only Korean, and her husband, the screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, who spoke only English.  

“I was translating between these two people,” she recalls. “And at one point, I realized that I wasn’t just translating between their languages and cultures, but also translating between these two parts of myself as well.” The experience, she says, “settled in me as a very special thing”. Song had previously spent a decade as a playwright. Now she knew she wanted to trade theatre for film.

Nora’s story mirrors Song’s own in many ways: both are playwrights who have lived in the same places, both met their husbands at artist retreats. Both understand the precarities of balancing between multiple cultures, multiple selves. But Song prefers to call it an “adaptation” of her life. The film-making process necessarily entailed “a bit of objectification”, she says. “And in doing that, it stops being about recreating something autobiographical. It becomes its own story.”

This is not the first time Song has crafted a character from herself. In her 2019 play Endlings, a narrative ostensibly about three elderly Korean haenyeo (freediving fisherwomen) is interrupted by the appearance of a Korean Canadian playwright living in Manhattan who puzzles over how to tell this tale without succumbing to a white audience’s expectations. She shares her dilemma with her partner, who wears a comically outsized Brechtian sign slung over his shoulders, reading: “WHITE HUSBAND (also a playwright)”.

Endlings was the culmination of a theatre career where Song had long chafed against the racial politics of the industry. “[I’d] been thinking about leaving for a long time,” she says. “It’s like a long breakup – like anything that you have a really deep, intimate relationship with. I don’t think I realised that until I made a movie.”

That idea of leaving – of the long, hard goodbye – also permeates Past Lives. Song, in promoting the film, has described the couple’s 12-year reunions as a “confirmation of death”, offering an unlikely analogy to a certain crime drama trope: the scene where a victim’s loved ones must identify the cadaver resting on a table. Nora and Hae Sung, in the same way, assay the possibility of their relationship again and again as they mature: is it dead? Was it ever alive?

“I wish it was very simple who they are to each other, but it’s really not!” Song says. “Nora and Hae Sung are not really exes, right? Because they only held hands as children – does it count? They’re not really friends, because I think friends are less estranged … But they’re not strangers. You couldn’t really say they’re acquaintances, because what they feel for each other is a lot deeper.”

For Song, it’s these ambiguities of life – “a very, very nebulous thing” – that make Past Lives compelling. The film’s central duo dwell in the mysteries of a not-quite romance just as Nora herself shoulders the uncertainties of immigration.

“You lose an entire culture and language which was your only language and culture, but you’ve started a new life,” Song says. “The thing you leave behind is so clear, but you do it in the hopes that you’re going to gain something. [You’re] straddling the space in between, where both those things are true … which is actually very connected to eastern philosophy, right? [It’s] about two oppositional things coexisting.”

Immigration might involve its own specific balancing act. But it’s not so different, says Song, from that most universal of processes: ageing. Both, to her, are forms of displacement – of exiting one chapter to launch headfirst into the unknown. Only hindsight can sharpen what we’ve sacrificed in the process.

“In our modern life, we don’t really get to hold a funeral for the 12-year-old that maybe you left behind in another country. But I think the movie really ends in that kind of ritual: of saying goodbye properly.”


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