Celine Song mines from a past life for Past Lives, a stunning feature film debut about fate and connection.
The film opens with a sequence pulled directly from the Korean Canadian playwright's own life: A woman (Greta Lee) is at a bar in the East Village, seated between two men (Teo Yoo and John Magaro) as patrons off-frame wonder who they are to one another — perhaps the two Koreans are tourists, and the American man is their guide? No, perhaps the Korean woman and American man are a couple, and the Korean man is a friend?
"I was finding my way around these two guys and translating for them so they could have a conversation, and there was something that felt really special about what was going on," Song recalls of her own fateful evening to EW. "I suddenly [thought], 'These two guys have no reason to know each other, let alone make this beautiful effort to get to know each other if it weren't for me.' I had become a bridge or a portal between them. I just thought that there was something really interesting going on there."
Jon Pack/A24 Greta Lee, John Magaro, and Teo Yoo in 'Past Lives'
That evening set the stage for Past Lives, a searing romance drama from A24 spanning time and continents. The film, also written by Song, follows Nora (Lee) and Hae Sung (Yoo), childhood sweethearts whose paths diverge after Nora's family emigrates from South Korea. A decade passes before Nora, now an aspiring playwright in the States, and Hae Sung, fresh out of mandatory military service in South Korea, reconnect online as young adults. Another 12 years go by, their lives further diverging — Nora marries fellow writer Arthur (Magaro) — before the two reunite once again in New York for one fateful week.
The Sundance breakout is rooted in in-yun, a Korean concept about fate and the destined connections people make with one another in their past lives. "If two strangers walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush," Nora explains to Arthur in the film, "that means there have been 8,000 layers of in-yun between them." Perhaps, then, stars Lee and Yoo were previously connected in a past life — both bound by thousands of layers of in-yun that have culminated in the here and now, staging a film production that delicately interrogates the what-ifs.
Lee recalls feeling "completely knocked over" by the script. "It felt like such a radical departure from the more conventional romantic movies that I'd seen," she says. "And to have that cultural specificity of [Nora] being Korean and the realities of living in America as an Asian woman — having that all incorporated into this piece but never in service of having to explain a racialized state, it was just in order to tell a very universal story about love — I read it and was like, how did [Song] manage to do this? I immediately fell in love with it."
Jon Pack/A24 Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in 'Past Lives'
Yoo, who was also "deeply moved" by the text, admits, "I had a good cry in the beginning. The concept of in-yun presented to Western audiences in such a beautiful and simple way really blew me away."
Throughout the drama, it's the words left unspoken that make up the emotional beats — the moments of silence between Nora and Hae Sung anchoring the actors' devastating performances as two people wrest apart without a proper goodbye. Those particular sequences without dialogue, Lee admits, felt "very exposing."
"We were strangers," she says of Yoo. "We were meeting each other and having to create a very specific dynamic in terms of being soulmates, childhood sweethearts. Those are things that we took really seriously. Those moments of silence are very exposing as actors. It's very naked. You can't hide behind dialogue. You can't hide behind anything. It really [put] us to task in terms of listening to each other and being in that moment. You can see everything that happens in silence."
Jon Pack/A24 Seung Ah Moon as young Nora and Seung Min Yim as young Hae Sung in 'Past Lives'
Yoo does not shy away from such unguarded moments. "In Pulp Fiction, Mia [talks about] uncomfortable silences [and being] comfortable in uncomfortable silences. That always stuck with me," he says. "I always felt rather comfortable in a vulnerable space. So for me, it was important not what I can say with the dialogue, but what I can say without dialogue and having great performers perform with you. Even though in the beginning we didn't know each other well, there was always a notion of trust."
Song even implemented an exercise that would help her stars bring their full selves to screen: "She didn't want us to touch until we actually do in the movie," Lee recalls with a laugh. "It's a very theater thing: We're hugging all the time. You say hi, you hug. You say bye, you hug. I remember at the time feeling actively resistant to that idea. I just felt like, 'Oh gosh, that's so method!'" However, "it really opened up our different ideas on the physicality of longing," Lee concedes. Thus, the first time Nora and Hae Sung embrace, during their very first in-the-flesh reunion at Madison Square Park, is also the first for Lee and Yoo.
"When you are able to touch each other for the first time in many, many years, it's always kind of a shock," Song notes, "especially if your connections have been virtual. I wanted to make sure that we had the illusion of that in some way, because they had to do this amazingly difficult scene of seeing each other for the first time in 24 years."
Jon Pack/A24 Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in 'Past Lives'
For Song, the film (it had the second-biggest limited release of 2023 last weekend and is currently sitting at 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) was an opportunity to excavate a past self — namely, what it was "like to live as myself when it comes to being an immigrant and having left a place and moved on from the version of myself that existed before," she offers. "I was feeling connected to the way that my childhood friend remembered me as a 12-year-old. I was fascinated by the contradiction. That little girl is gone, but also, part of you is always that little girl."
Past Lives is currently playing in select theaters and expands nationwide on June 23.
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