It’s third grade, and your teacher sits you next to a random boy. You’re strangers; you don’t want to sit by him. But, over the next few months, you begin to notice how he always sharpens your pencil when he goes up to sharpen his, and how he offhandedly offers you the strawberry fruit snacks tucked in his lunchbox. One rainy day, he even gives you his Batman umbrella because you forgot your own. It’s probably not love, but you’re 8, and it’s the closest thing you’ve ever felt to it. Now, you’re an adult, and you haven’t thought about — much less spoken to — that boy in years. But, there’s a part of you that wonders what would happen if you saw him again.
Celine Song’s directorial debut “Past Lives,” which releases nationwide today, June 23, centers on if your childhood sweetheart wasn’t just a memory and instead, pops up in your life after 20 years of separation. The A24 film drops the audience into the life of writer Nora (Greta Lee) along with her husband Arthur (John Magaro) who are visited by her former schoolmate Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) when he travels from South Korea to New York City on vacation. The film is an intimate affair that allows the fly-on-the-wall viewers into the trio’s life and zeroes in on quiet moments between the characters.
The film opens from an outsider perspective with off-screen voices playfully questioning how the trio is connected. Are the Asian man and woman siblings? Are they dating? Who’s the white man with them? This type of people-watching isn’t uncommon, and it’s something Song imagines she once fell victim to herself, she told Vulture last month. Sitting in a Manhattan speakeasy with her white husband and a former Korean sweetheart, Song could all but hear the thoughts of fellow customers, wondering who the trio were to one another.
Beyond this moment, the film finds many other similarities to Song’s actual life: Nora’s immigration from Korea to Canada and her career as a playwright in New York City. It wouldn’t be surprising if the film stirred up memories, but Song was able to separate her own emotions from the storyline.
“I felt it was more like those were subjective memories and experiences that I was turning into an [actual] object — which is a script. I think it was an interesting way to see those images and feelings objectively,” Song says in an interview with Character Media.
“I was telling a story through memory but also honestly just thinking about what would make a great movie.”
And to be fair, throughout filming, Nora became another character entirely. Lee explains, “I’d be a fool not to [use Celine]; it was an incredible, instantly accessible resource for me in playing [Nora.] That being said, she did this incredible thing where she created such a firm foundation for us in the form of this gorgeous — ridiculously gorgeous — script that she wrote. But, at the same time, she gave me full license to just run with it. There was a distinct moment where she was like, ‘She’s yours now. I need you to take on the soul of this character and run free.’”
From the nostalgia-tinted memories of Nora and Hae Sung’s childhood to Arthur’s sincere confession of insecurity during their marriage, “Past Lives” thrives on Song’s ability to delve into the nooks and crannies of human emotion. Using her life experience as a guideline to make the film as authentic (whatever that means) as possible, she constructed Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship with the awkward elation present at their reunion. In preparation for playing 20-year-separated sweethearts, Lee and Yoo were not allowed to meet in person until the first day of filming, and they couldn’t touch until the script called for it.
Though Yoo found the rule dumb at first, he felt that as a professional actor he could show the restraint of being separated from someone for 24 years. “Since touch was stripped away from us every time during rehearsal, I had the instinct to just hug or say goodbye with a handshake, saying, ‘Come on, it’s stupid.’”
“It kind of prepped us for a very visceral first encounter when we were hugging. I’m just happy that the audience gets to experience that with us.”
Lee agrees, believing that the method brought a deeper emotional effect in the film. She mentions that Song also found other ways to bring the relationship between Nora, Hae Sung and even Arthur to life. “It was fun! We joked that it was the sadistic side of [Celine], like encouraging me to talk about each of the actors to each other.” Lee says. “There were days of just working with Teo, and John would ask, ‘What’s he like? Is he funnier than me?’ And then Teo would ask about John. But that all created that kind of electricity between them when they first met.”
The small cast allows each of the main actors to bring something specific yet understated to the film. Viewers grasp that Nora’s fate is tied to the two men in her life, highlighting the film’s concept of In-yun, a Korean word detailing how fate always brings two people together based on connections in their past lives. The concept explains that those on your path will always be on your path; perhaps they manifest in different ways, but your connection remains, weaning and waving like tides in the ocean.
Arthur and Hae Sung represent two paths that Nora could have taken — and not just in a romantic sense. While “Past Lives” is an intimate and moving love story, its romance is coupled with even greater “what-ifs” — especially when it comes to Nora’s relationship with her homeland. Hae Sung becomes an amalgamation of everything Nora could have had if she had stayed in South Korea, teasing the idea of a parallel fate.
While the film remains deeply intertwined with Nora’s migrant background, non-immigrant audiences can still relate to “Past Lives.” Song hopes any viewer can empathize with the themes of the film: “The best I can hope for is to describe the specific realities of being a person, and hopefully, it resonates with as many people as possible.”
Lee agrees. To her, the heart of the film is something universal.
“It’s [for] anyone who’s had to leave home, or make a decision in order to make space for something else. For Nora, it’s following her dreams and being so unapologetic about the life she wants for herself. In a way, her first love is her future, and everything she wants in life, but the painful reality of that is in order to clear the way to achieve that, it involves saying goodbye to a lot of other things.”
“Past Lives” has shown that in life, you will have to say goodbye often. For Nora, it was her birthplace. For others, it’s their families. And maybe for some, it’s the 8-year-old boy who offered you his fruit snacks. But these goodbyes don’t mean you can’t acknowledge people’s impacts on you, and how their presence shaped your fate.
This article will appear in Character Media’s Annual 2023 Issue. Read our 2022 issue here.