Past Lives, writer-director Celine Song's feature film debut, begins at a speakeasy, opening with off-screen patrons observing a trio seated at the bar — a Korean woman, sitting between a Korean man and a white man — and wondering aloud, Who are they to one another? As they guess at which of the two men the woman is with, she suddenly looks over to them — and the camera — knowingly.
"That was the first scene that I ever wrote," Song says. "That scene is supposed to be a little bit confrontational, right? Nora turns and breaks the fourth wall — that's a theater trick — and sort of beckons the audience to dare to ask the question of who are they to each other as well."
Five years ago, Korean-Canadian playwright and first-time filmmaker Song found herself at a bar in Manhattan, seated between her husband, the Jewish-American writer Justin Kuritzkes, and a childhood sweetheart visiting from Seoul. As they drank, she spoke to the former in English, the latter in Korean, and the only way the two men could communicate was through her.
"In that moment, it felt like something special was passing through me," Song recalls. "It was a sense of, 'There is something really amazing about this that says something about what it's like to be a person, and also a person like me.'" She shared the story with friends over the coming months and, "Without fail, every time I would tell the story to a friend, we would have really a great conversation that was very deep and very rooted in their history and personhood."
So, Song wrote Past Lives. The film unfolds as a triptych, beginning in Korea as a young Nora, at the time known as Na Young, falls for Hae Sung. After her family leaves Seoul to immigrate to Ontario, 12 years pass before the two briefly reconnect over Skype. And then another 12 years pass, and Nora (played by Greta Lee, who refers to Song as her "artistic soulmate") is living in New York City and married to Arthur (John Magaro), who she met on a writers' retreat. When Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) seeks her out hoping to reconnect, the film becomes less a typical love triangle, and more a rumination on what if?
"I sometimes talk about the movie as a mystery movie. It's the mystery of who are these three people to each other. You set up the mystery and welcome the audience into the mystery, and then, we jump back 24 years," Song says. "Then we live the 24 years that lead to the scene in the bar again. When we come back to that same scene near the end of the film, you're suddenly in a place where the audience is able to solve the mystery. Suddenly, the same image that was the opening image becomes a new image for the audience, because of the life that they have lived with these three characters."
How much of the story is actually autobiographical? Or where is the separation between autobiography and then maybe autobiographically honest but ultimately fictionalized?
CELINE SONG: I think the word autofiction sometimes comes in. I talk about it as an 'adapted from' or 'inspired by' kind of a thing, and the facts are only helpful if they contribute to the story. Because, at the end of the day, it has to exist as a movie first and foremost, and these characters have to exist as characters in a movie. But I was trying to be really honest about what it feels like to me personally, to live in the body that I do through time and space, and to age and to go through events in your life that are seemingly ordinary but sometimes loom as large as something extraordinary and massive. That feeling had to be really personal and honest. So, it was more like a feeling thing than a fact thing.
GRETA LEE: Right from the beginning, it was so apparent in the writing, the hyper-restraint and the simplicity and the way that it was able to take things that felt so intimate and private, but make them feel monumental and massive in scale. I hadn't seen a love story told from that point of view. And the woman at the center of this being a woman who's not lost and trying to figure out what to do about her life by picking any sort of man. She's a woman who's fully formed and knows exactly what she wants but reckoning with a past love, and this idea of her identity and the choices that she's made that have informed her life. All those things just felt really radical. I had never seen that before done in quite that way.
Celine, talk to me about finding Greta and what made her right for Nora.
SONG: I think I always knew that she was amazingly talented and a great actor who can do literally anything, and she has an amazing sense of humor and a lot of depth of her soul. Then the second level is the one that I could only feel when I did meet her for an audition. What I'm looking for is a soul match to the character. What I mean by that is Nora has to be the burning center of this movie, and she has to be ambitious and powerful and also totally vulnerable and totally filled with the kind of folies that every person has.There's some amazing contradiction to Greta Lee, where in one moment she feels like a fully grown woman and in the next moment she feels like a kid. I think those are the things that really spoke to me. And then knowing on a pure craft level just how good she is, because the movie requires that. Especially the way that I wanted to make the movie, I needed all three of those actors to be good actors in such a fundamental way, so she was somebody who was both of those things.
You didn't do any chemistry tests with the adult actors, but when the chemistry is so integral to the story and so nuanced and specific, how do you know that it will work?
SONG: Come of it is like an instinct. To me, I didn't have a doubt in my mind that they would have chemistry. It's just a feeling you get. Also, I know what I'm looking for in a soul match, if the actors are soul matches to the character, they're going to have some kind of a connection and some kind of a relationship that's going to be helpful. But on the other hand, I knew that was going to be a part of the work — building intimacy — and one of the ways that you can build connection is to get to know each other. It's so simple. Part of it is getting to know each other's strengths and flaws and the depth of their life. Doing that really did lead to having natural chemistry.
Greta, as an actor, does not chemistry testing cause you any stress or consternation?
LEE: Absolutely! It's the same reason why I love auditioning. That is the insurance that you are on the same page and that there are no surprises when you get on set. Everyone is in collective agreement in terms of what you're getting. It sounds so cliche, but it's such a leap of faith to be paired up with certain performers and conjuring these highly specific relationships. And not in a flamboyant, spectacle kind of a way, but in a very hyper-real, authentic way. 'How can I show a marriage, a good one, with a complete stranger? How can I show my first love, who is my soulmate, with another complete stranger?' We were really betting on all of these pieces coming together, and we utilized some methods.
Celine had this idea that she wanted to keep the two men separate from each other, so they never actually met until they meet in the movie. Just like it was true for her in her real life, she was a conduit between the two men, so to capture that essence, I had to keep them separate. We also did this thing to create longing — I guess you could call it a more method experiment — in that Celine asked Teo and I to not touch. The first time we hug is in the movie. And all that not touching amounted to, I think, a pretty nice hug.
The whole movie emotionally builds up to Nora's last two scenes with Hae Sung and with Arthur. Were you able to film those last?
SONG: We shot that as the last piece before we moved to the built set where we shot the Skype sequence. What I called "Hell Week" was the week that we shot those final two big pieces, which is the scene in the bar and then the scene in the street as she's walking home. I think Monday we shot Dumbo, Tuesday we shot the subway, and then on Wednesday and Thursday, we shot the bar scene. And on Friday, we shot the walk home, which is the very, very final sequence. What's amazing about being able to set up the schedule like that is we were able to basically build on the work that they had been doing. And then all the held tears and held emotions and held everything could really work in favor of the scene of Nora walking home crying. I think all of those things were set up so that we were able to do it like that.
Greta, how did you feel going into Hell Week?
LEE: I was terrified. I think I tried to quit. The thing about this movie is it's so exposing in everything that it's not. Because I had to play this woman who was so incredibly real and I wasn't able to hide behind any artifice or any distractions in the form of clothing or makeup or anything, it was so vulnerable. And to do that over months while negotiating multiple languages and being directed in multiple languages with two different men who weren't allowed to speak or meet to each other, it was brutal. It really was. And not to mention the fact that we were shooting on 35mm, so there was an incredible amount of pressure to not mess up. But in the end, I'm actually really grateful for that, because it lit a fire under our butts, absolutely, to get with the program and make the most of every moment.
And Hell Week, I mean, it was made clear that the whole movie hinges on the success of the speakeasy scene. No pressure or anything. And also the goodbye, which was this incredible tracking shot that we did in one take, from the brownstone over to saying goodbye at the Uber then back again. Doing that over and over and over again at three in the morning on film was so hard and so fun. The most fulfilling and exciting, gratifying experience.
SONG: The scene of her walking home, that was East Village on Friday night. It was a zoo. It was so busy, there were drunk people everywhere, and it was a pretty wild experience to shoot this really intimate and deep scene. But I wanted it to be shot after we shot the speakeasy scene for that reason, and I think that's how we were able to achieve the miraculous scene where everything went right, which is her walk home.
Celine, how did you feel on the last day of filming Hell Week?
SONG: I felt like, 'I have a movie.' I was just so happy because I was like, I know that there's still so much unknown — we still have to go to Korea and we have so much more to make — but because of the walk home, because of the scene in the speakeasy, I knew that I had a movie in the can, in some way. Because if those scenes work, the movie will work. That was the feeling I had.
By John Boone