By Yun-hua Chen.
Characters that I am trying to create are in general characters that are very thrilled to exist as who they are. So, I think this is really about not making apologies.”
Exploring untaken paths and traces of human connections that feel like originating in past lives, Celine Song’s debut film is meticulously crafted in a heartfelt manner and with lots of confidence and elegance. Nora (Greta Lee), an alter-ego of Celine Song, is a South Korean-Canadian who migrated with her artist parents at the age of 12 and later moved to New York to pursue the career as a playwright. Her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), with whom she went on a “date” arranged by her mother before the family flew to a different continent, follows a rather conventional path of doing military service after university, living with parents well into adulthood, and attempting to climb up career ladder in the highly competitive job and marriage market of Korean society. Nora and Hae Sung are overjoyed to reconnect after 12 years over Skype and get to know each other as young adults, but insurmountable long distance creates a void in daily reality that cannot be bridged. After another 12 years pass, Hae Sung goes to New York to see the happily married Nora one more time. Their first encounter blends genuine feelings of surprise, disbelief, relief, and joy, as it was deliberately designed by the director as the first encounter between Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. That is the “In-Yeon” that Celine Song cleverly though artificially creates for her film. The Buddhist concept “In-Yeon” prevalent in East and South Asia posits the notion of past lives coexisting within the present life; the feelings of past lives can be felt at present, and what is experienced in this life eventually becomes the connection that re-emerge in the next lives – somehow guided by unseen forces like karma.
Celine Song, acclaimed as a playwright in the theater realm, ventures into the world of film with her deeply intimate and at the same time universally relatable story. It is both a romantic film about the profound and unfading feelings that two individuals hold for each other over a sustained period of time, and an almost anti-romantic film that resists romanticism and refrains from indulgence. With self-conscious soberness that only comes with adulthood and maturity, Past Lives is both about the necessity of leaving parts of the past behind and the discovery and acceptance of those buried fragments.
In a graceful manner, the portrayal of Greta Lee and Teo Yoo seamlessly captures the nuances that span decades. Teo Yoo, a German-South Korean actor who was born in Cologna and became internationally known for his role as Viktor Tsoi in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto (2018), skillfully embodies a solid Korean who does not emigrate, contrary to himself. Greta Lee’s Nora, on the other hand, exudes independence, boldness, determination, and complexity that is not always present in Asian female characters, adding depth to Celine Song’s already multi-faceted and well-developed script. Together they seem distinct yet bonded, culturally distanced but with unfathomable mutual understanding. Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography renders New York authentic and lived, and the composition of two shots subtle and fitting. The jewel in the crown is the post-impressionistic and neo-romantic soundtrack by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, known for their work in Blue Valentine (2010), with the quality of fragility and purity as well as crystal-like clarity and a clever interplay between innocence and depth. Its pentatonic scale is reminiscent of both Claude Debussy and animated features by Hayao Miyazaki, all the while being enhanced by long sustained notes of string instruments.
Premiered at Sundance and acclaimed at the Berlinale, Celine Song continues with her festival tour at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where she discusses with Film International her story telling through cinematic means, New York, and In-Yeon.
As Hae Sung and Nora went through different stages in life, Hae Sung asked what award Nora would like to win at three different points, and she gave three different answers. Are these the punctuating points for the structure of the film?
Award is something that the little Nora really believed in. Hae Sung asked her in different points of her life, “what would you like to win now?” Of course, it is kind of a reminder of the little girl that she was and that he would like to hold on to, as in “I know this about her.” How Nora answers changes over the course of the film. The first time she is like, “I want to win!” And then the second time when they connect, she is a bit more like “hmm.. I won’t tell anyone this, but this is what I want to win.” When she becomes a full grown-up, the first thing she says is that, “I haven’t really thought about that lately.” I think this is really about the way that Nora is sort of growing up through it, and Hae Sung is still stuck onto that little girl that he remembers. He is the one who keeps wanting her to affirm that she is still that girl. I think it is an amazing thing that Nora is resisting. She is like, I don’t know, until, of course, in the scene at the bar when she says that, actually, that girl is real; it doesn’t mean that that girl is not here just because I am now this grown woman. I think the movie really is about the contradiction in all of us. I think all of us are of course here, talking about things professionally, very seriously, as grown-ups. I also know that all of us was once a 12-year-old kid who can also really come out. I heard this saying before, “there is a part of us that just comes out when we are with our parents.” You would suddenly be reverted to that kid too. So, which is it? Is it that you are these amazing professional people with a job to do? Or you are the little kid complaining about what they want to eat and what they don’t want to eat? Every human existence is that you have both and you are all of it, from even that point to this point. I think that to me Nora is that girl that is like, I am going to win, and she is also this grown-up living in New York City with realistic expectations in her life. That’s what the push and pull conversation is about. Her priorities change the whole time although she is also still the 12-year-old as you see in the final scene.
It is wonderful to see an independent Asian woman character who is bold to declare what she wants and desires. How did you flesh out such a complex and multifaceted character?
Characters that I am trying to create are in general characters that are very thrilled to exist as who they are. So, I think this is really about not making apologies. This is something common for women, of course non-white women in general. There is a feeling that, is this personal to just want something? Is it going to make them unlikeable, hard to love? Of course, Nora is going to be someone who is very honest about what she wants, and that to me is very important. It is very important for Hae Sung or Arthur to be very clear about what they want; Arthur is unbelievably clear about what he wants and Hae-Song too. What they want is not going to be harmful to each other. They are not going to fight and punch each other, but they are going to want something as adults, and they are not going to apologize for it. I think that’s certainly true for Nora. She is not going to apologize for choosing to live in New York, and choosing her life as a playwright and pursuing her dreams. I think that for me is at the heart of the movie. It’s about choosing herself. It’s so easy to think, which guy she is going to choose. But no, she is going to choose herself. Both men know that, and they love her for that.
For most people living in New York, I am sure that there are parts that are in postcards, and there are parts that you just walk through every day. What I was interested in was finding something that feels authentic to me as somebody who lives in New York as how New York feels like.”
One of the things that I really like about the film is that the characters have a very special relationship with their cities which they live in. Why is it important for you to shoot it in New York for the most part?
There is the city that we might see in a tour guide, and there is the city that you see as a person who lives there. That’s how I want to approach shooting New York. I feel that there are already a lot of drone shots, helicopter shots when you shoot New York, or something that is very glossy, beautiful, big and things like that. But for most people living in New York, I am sure that there are parts that are in postcards, and there are parts that you just walk through every day. What I was interested in was finding something that feels authentic to me as somebody who lives in New York as how New York feels like. So, for example, I wanted the Statue of Liberty to be in the movie because Hae Sung is a tourist, and Nora is an immigrant. For New Yorkers, Statue of Liberty is not romantic. For people in Prague, the castle means nothing to them. For tourists and immigrants, it’s a lovely symbol and a magnificent and amazing thing. I knew that they needed to go to Statue of Liberty for that reason. But, what I didn’t want is some drone shots or something where there are other spectacular things. I wanted the scene from a boat. I wanted it to be a little bit like when you actually go to see it because I have actually gone and seen it. What’s amazing is that it’s this big thing, but it’s always moving when you see it from a boat. I am an immigrant. For me it is an important symbol too because it is a symbol of immigration. The idea is so romantic. When the first immigrants arrived in New York, it was before the time when people could see postcards of it, and nobody knew what it looked like. They all just took a boat and went like, there is this massive thing welcoming us to the city. My crew were all New Yorkers and they were like, why are we shooting the Statue of Liberty? It’s so stupid, right? When we actually got on the boat and approached the Statue of Liberty, they were like, damn, this is actually really cool.
People talk a lot about the concept of “In-Yeon” after the film…
It’s not just a Korean concept. It’s an Eastern philosophy concept. It exists in China, India, Japan, and I think there is a word for it in Thailand too. It’s a word that is part of the Eastern philosophy where destiny is not something you try to go, but destiny is something that comes to you. And In-Yeon is about people who just walk into your life. It is an everyday concept. In Korea you won’t go through one day without somebody mentioning In-Yeon. It is true that people use it to seduce someone. You go like, oh my god, how crazy that we just sat next to each other, it must be Yin-Yeon, can I have your number? You can use it like that. People also use it in a friendly way. Also, there is weight to that because what it implies is that we knew each other in our past lives. What it means is that it is not an accident that we ended up at this table together. It is actually a really amazing cosmic universe thing that we bumped into each other and knew each other many times and now we are sitting here together. It’s both for a person who brings you a glass of water at a restaurant that you will never see again, and also your partner of life that is a deeper In-Yeon. You probably knew this person more in your past lives, but both are In-Yeon. What it does is that it makes every connection that we make, every encounter we have very special and with a meaning. It makes us want to be better to each other too, and to be more decent.
Did you feel that the becoming-adult process of Nora is also about accepting things as how they are?
I think a part of the things that you are accepting is the consequences of your decisions in life. I believe in the ancient Greek saying, character is the destiny. I think the thing is that as Hae Sung says, to me you are somebody who leaves. So, I think accepting is about acknowledging too. What Hae Sung did to Nora and by extension to Arthur is that he allowed them to contend with the little girl that she once was and she forgot about until Hae Sung kept coming back into her life. She was like, that girl is gone; I left that girl back in Korea, and I don’t care about that girl. I think that when Hae Song came looking for that girl, that’s when she was able to acknowledge that girl too.
I talk about the film in terms of three goodbyes: two bad goodbyes and one good goodbye. First goodbye is what they do as children, and that’s a goodbye that doesn’t work because they are too young. They just go like, bye, and they don’t know how to say goodbye properly. The second time they say goodbye to each other, they hurt each other. There is a possibility of something, but long-distance makes it impossible and they hurt each other. That’s also a bad goodbye. The final goodbye is a good goodbye because finally they are getting the goodbye that they are owed for 24 years. That is why when we flash back to the childhood in that moment when Uber comes, it is in the dark. I wanted to imply that these kids have been waiting in that corner to get their proper goodbye for 24 years and only when they are able to do so can the movie end, and that’s also when Nora can cry and allow herself to say goodbye to the little girl. It’s a gift from Hae Song that she gets to walk home thinking about that little girl that she didn’t think mattered, and now she is going to get to say proper goodbye and grieve her and mourn her on her walk home.
You started from a story that you firmly believed in. Why did you choose film as a medium?
This particular story is one that spans decades and continents. The locations in the movie, the cities they live in, are part of the story. I wanted the cities to feel completely different. In Seoul when Hae Song is there, I wanted the sound to be different, color to be different, city to be different than New York, which sounds different, looks different. How different these spaces that they occupy in life are is the main reason for which they cannot be together; that’s what keeps them apart.
To me the locations matter so much. I needed to do it in films because it is a literal space. In theatre space is figurative, but in film it has to be so literal. The other element is aging. I needed the characters to age properly. In theatre you can have a 40-year-old woman playing a 12-year-old kid, and that happens often. You can’t really do that in film. I actually wanted that to be true. I wanted to feel the aging through time. I was not doing anything too dramatic to make it happen, but it is actually a part of storytelling that how different a grown man looks compared to the little boy that we see at the beginning of the film. I think those are the things that make it the right story for cinematic storytelling as opposed to other forms of storytelling.
It’s also a film about many paths not taken in life….
Maybe we did have past lives. Maybe we didn’t. But I know that it is something that is behind this feeling that we sometimes have. Sometimes we meet a stranger and feel, I think I know you from somewhere; for some reason, it is so easy to talk like we have known each other for 10 years. How could that be? That feeling, which I think a lot of us can connect to, maybe we can say that it is because we knew each other in the past lives, I wonder. I don’t really remember my past lives, but I do remember my past lives in this life. It is something universal. We can all connect to the feeling that there is a version of me that exists within my own lifetime and sometimes as recent as six months ago. I think about that so much too. Before this movie came out, this movie was just a secret that I held in me. Now the movie is out in the world, and it already feels like a new life.
Did you feel that with the film you are sharing your most intimate stories with the whole world? What is your understanding of a romantic film?
This movie started from such an intimate subjective place, of course, and that’s the spark and that’s how I built it. But when I am turning it into an object, there is an objectification of a subjective experience. I am objectifying the experience into a script, first of all, and further than that, I have to turn the script, the object, into a film. By the time that I was making the movie, whatever was subjectively affecting about the process became just a movie that I needed to make, so I just ended up focusing so much on making the film itself. Ultimately this is a thing that I wrote. Honestly, the most intimate and personal thing that happened was my own discovery of myself as a filmmaker, and I think it was a revelation to me because I didn’t know. I was a playwright for so long, and there was really a moment when I was like, holy shit, I am so happy to be doing this. This is what I really want to do. There is a real discovery process for me that way. That to me is the most intimate thing for myself, but of course my personal story is the beginning.
What is a really great romantic film that I personally really love is Far from the Madding Crowd. I love the book, and there are a couple of adaptations. I love the Carey Mulligan version. There is also one in the 60s. I love for the same reason, which is that she chose herself. The guy is only a part of life in her process of choosing herself. The thing that I want to avoid is any kind of love stories that are about capitalism, where choosing partners is regarded as acquisition. Like, who is the hottest guy I can get given how hot I am. Well, that’s not actually about love; it’s actually about acquisition. That’s a market. I think that’s just bad for love. Love is not a deal that you are going to get. Rather, love is just something that you are going to give. There is love between friends and between parents and children, and there are also other kinds of love in life that is unbelievably crucial for a happy life.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).