Celine Song discusses her directorial debut, which follows two childhood sweethearts from Seoul who reunite as adults in New York
Time crawls, climbs and expands in Celine Song’s affecting romance Past Lives. We move across multiple temporal planes – from 12-year cycles to separate time zones, to different lifetimes. Concerned with the way the past comes back to us in strange movements, the film is a gentle, wistful mediation on life’s what-ifs as we follow two people who invariably turn back to each other through the years.
Song built the film around inyun, a Korean concept of destiny, which imagines that each encounter between two souls is the product of countless interactions in their past lives. Brushing shoulders with someone on the bus could be inyun; a friendship is inyun; and a marriage is miraculously a result of 8,000 layers of inyun over 8,000 lifetimes. The concept of the film emerged from Song’s own experience of a strange, fateful encounter, when she found herself sitting between her American husband and her Korean childhood sweetheart at a bar in New York. She wondered, “How is it possible for these two men to be sitting across from each other right now, across different worlds? It must be inyun.”
The film follows two childhood sweethearts, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) from their childhood in Seoul together to their diverging paths as adults. The young Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Nora (Seung Ah Moon) (then, known as Na Young) are first seen bickering about their grades, walking home together. Nora tells her mum matter-of-factly, “I will probably marry him.” Yet, Nora’s path is not so clear-cut – her family is emigrating to Canada. The best friends are unable to express their sadness at their separation on their final day together: instead, they walk home quietly as usual, and when it comes time to part ways, Hae Sung unceremoniously utters “bye,” and turns away. 12 years later, they reconnect online as adults, calling each other almost on a daily basis between New York and Seoul, and we watch Nora navigate her early career as a playwright while Hae Sung finishes his engineering degree. After a brief but intense virtual reunion, they part ways again. Another 12 years pass and they reconnect for a second time, when Hae Sung comes to New York to visit Nora and her writer husband Arthur (John Magaro).
Celine Song’s theatrical roots have perfectly translated into a new, brilliant cinematic language – how her script is defined both by its urgency and its deliberate silences, a resounding rhythm that speaks the unspeakable. Song avoids expected clichés – preserving our longing without feeding the love triangle; building emotions gradually while evading oversentimentality; capturing intimacy and restraint in small gestures. In one scene, we see Hae Sung and Nora on the metro, their hands resting on a pole together just barely touching, a moment expressing this gravitational push and pull of their own private world.
Here, we speak to Song about how she makes time, longing and distance tangible in Past Lives.
Body language and touch are such integral parts of building longing and communication in the film. What was your process of building this sense of tension?
Celine Song: The interplay between closeness and distance is at the heart of the film. The way that longing works is that it goes away when it’s consummated – when you have it, you don’t want it anymore and that tension disappears. Having worked in theatre for a long time, I think a lot about how different bodies work in the same space and how longing is inscribed into their physical distance.
In the scene where Nora and Hae Sung see each other for the first time in real life in 24 years at Madison Square Park, we observe them looking at each other at a distance at first, observing the emotions across their face. I wrote this scene and I describe how it’s as though they’ve both seen a ghost in each other. And it’s terrifying that they are real and she’s walking towards him.
The last time they touched each other they were children. And to set my actors up for success for this extraordinary moment, Greta Lee and Teo Yoo weren’t allowed to touch each other during rehearsal and they touched for the first time on-camera. Keeping this space between them was so integral to their interactions, so when they finally hug on-screen for the first time, the moment feels so powerful. There’s very little dialogue in this scene, and you learn that you can tell the story just from the way a person looks at somebody else.
In the scene, my cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and I further emphasised this sense of distance with the swivelling camera, moving back and forth between the character’s faces and focusing on their expressions separately. This builds longing in the audience – you want to see the other person’s reaction when they are out of frame.
The film is divided into 12-year segments. Why is 12 significant? I know in Chinese culture, it’s your birth year every 12 years, signalling a moment of change.
Celine Song: 12 is a strong number in Eastern philosophy and it is a powerful number in numerology. I think the contradiction of time is interesting: 12 years is long enough for a significant change in your life, yet in another way, it feels like nothing could’ve changed. It’s important to balance this contradiction.
I thought the expression of identity and selfhood is really interesting, of how Arthur and Hae Sung both know such different parts of Nora, and in a sense, they get to know Nora better through knowing each other, too. Memory is seen as co-dependent, as you depend on another to bear witness to who you are and who they are. Can you tell me a bit about your concept of relationships and identity?
Celine Song: I really wanted to express this sense of their relationship. Is Nora a professional New York playwright? Of course. But, is she also the little girl from Seoul who is ambitious and hardy and only speaks Korean? Absolutely. Nora is known by Hae Sung and Arthur in really different ways. Hae Sung knows this part of Nora that she left behind in Seoul, a part that Arthur doesn’t know, and he is insecure that he feels like there’s a part of her he can’t access.
In the bar, when Nora goes to the bathroom, and it’s just Hae Sung and Arthur sitting alone together, the song that plays is John Cale’s ‘You Know More Than I Know’. That’s really about their relationship, and how Nora will be unknown to both of them in some ways. Yet, the most amazing thing is that Hae Sung comes to New York to visit his friend and childhood sweetheart for two days, and although nothing dramatic happens, he leaves an indelible mark on Nora and Arthur’s life.
Nora is able to grieve the little girl she left behind in Seoul, and she’s able to recognise what she has lost through this shared moment with Hae Sung. When Nora cries at the end of the film, you recall the little girl who used to cry all the time in Korea. We remember that Nora says she stopped crying when she moved abroad ‘because no one cared’. Yet on the streets of NYC, you feel that she is crying again as though she’s on the streets of Korea. And her husband experiences this child-like side of her. Arthur keeps saying how he wants to know her better and be a part of her life more deeply because he loves her, and because of Hae Sung, he sees this part of her past. What’s extraordinary is that Hae Sung’s love for Nora is so powerful it brings Arthur and Nora together more intimately. Hae Sung also leaves more fulfilled, because he’s made peace with the past.
For everyone, there’s a 12-year-old version of ourselves that exists within us. And it comes out depending on who you’re with, someone who holds that part of you with them. It’s about these multiple selves existing together, bearing witness to each other’s past selves, and accepting that, and allowing yourself to be more than one thing.
“For everyone, there’s a 12-year-old version of ourselves that exists within us. And it comes out depending on who you’re with, someone who holds that part of you with them” – Celine Song
Time is made tangible throughout the silences in the film too. How do you make silence a part of the story?
Celine Song: In the very final scene, when Hae Sung and Nora are walking in silence, we feel their tension, of all the things of their past they’ve spoken about and the anticipation of their second goodbye.
Hae Sung mentions that the Uber will be [there in] two minutes, until we know he leaves her life again. The trick is for this silence to feel both like eternity – like it’s never going to end, but also, of course when the car comes to break their eye contact, you’re like ‘oh, no, just give us ten more seconds together’. That’s the magic. It needs the contradiction of being too long and too short. Time is such a subjective thing. I didn’t give the actors any indication how long the silence was going to be. So there’s this real panic of them feeling like the silence is endless as they just look at each other. I was actually cueing the Uber by hand, so we were all waiting breathlessly. I could only decide by trusting my intuition.
Similarly, during the Skype scenes, I wanted to depict technology with all its lags and dysfunctions. So we made a decision to do everything practically during the emotional Skype scenes. I was like a DJ, controlling when to freeze the frame, and the actors had no idea when the connection was going to be bad while they were acting. It had to be bad, because that’s part of the time period and their relationship then.
Past Lives is out in UK cinemas from September 8