How Celine Song’s Past Lives became the surprise indie hit of the year

The semi-autobiographical Canadian film is earning huge Oscar buzz
Courtney Shea

Past Lives, a new film from indie hitmaker A24, has been wowing critics with its intercontinental love story, told on an intimate scale. The movie, set mostly in Seoul and NYC, marks the filmmaking debut of Canadian director and playwright Celine Song. “I wanted to tell a story about how the ordinary can be extraordinary,” says Song, whose immigration journey mirrors that of Nora, the film’s protagonist. Both left South Korea for Canada when they were 12 years old, and both wrestled with their sense of identity in the years that followed. Since the premiere of Past Lives at Sundance, Song’s life has changed yet again: her film, which earned a standing ovation and stellar reviews, is now receiving the inevitable Oscar buzz. Here, she chats about how much of Past Lives is pulled from her own experiences and the culturally specific Easter eggs she planted.

Past Lives is largely chronological, except for the opening scene that takes place in a New York bar. Why did you begin there?

When we start the movie we see three characters at a bar in the East Village: Nora, who is the centre of the film, sitting next to Arthur, her white American husband, and Hae Sung, her childhood sweetheart from Korea. Then we hear the voices of other people in the bar who are wondering who these people are to each other. They’re playing a guessing game. Who is the couple? Who is the friend or sibling? It’s an invitation to the audience to come up with their own theories about these questions, which are the mystery of the film. And then we go back to 20 years earlier where Nora and Hae Sung are children in Korea.

Like Nora, you emigrated from South Korea to Canada to New York. You are also married to a white American man. To what extent is the movie autobiographical?

I did once find myself sitting in a bar between my husband and my childhood sweetheart. I was translating between them, and I could see other people in the bar looking at us, trying to figure us out. I thought, Okay, what if I tell a story that does nothing but try to answer that question? The story is adapted from events of my life, but also feelings I have experienced. It’s a personal story, but not a transcription of anything that happened to me.

Nora feels pulled between the life she is living in New York and the life she left in Seoul. Is that something you relate to?

Of course. I made a very big leap in my life, immigrating from South Korea to Toronto to New York. But I also wanted the story to be something universal. People who have left Houston to work in Manhattan will say things like, “Back in my Houston days…” Or if a lawyer becomes a chef, they might say, “Back in my lawyer days…” Even leaving a relationship is a kind of immigration, where you’re leaving a part of yourself to start anew. Nora’s story is the version that I know—physically and culturally and language-wise—but the idea is that we can all connect to this idea of past life.

You also have a past life as a successful playwright. What about Past Lives felt more like a movie?

What drove the decision was the story. The movie spans decades and continents, and it also involves aging. I wanted to do something that was a little more literal, which you can do in film more so than on the stage. And then there were the locations that were part of the characters and the storytelling. I wanted to make sure that the audience really felt these places—Seoul and New York—and understood how they are different.

What did you love about making a movie that is different from directing a play?

I loved it all! The part of me that loves being in control was really tickled by the process of making a movie, and then I just loved being on set and being part of the filmmaking machine. And I loved editing, which is a chance to rewrite the movie in these very small ways. After we shot everything, I was able to put this puzzle together from the images and the dialogue and the audio. I think I became a better writer by making a movie.

This is very much a story about cultural identity. Certain characteristics and customs are described as “so Korean.” How has the reception you’ve received from Korean audiences been different from other audience reactions?

The Korean-speaking audience connected with certain details in the film that are hidden just for them: there are times when I didn’t translate everything the characters were saying or texting. A friend of mine saw the movie and asked, “Are you okay that these really specific things are going to be missed by people who don’t understand Korean culture?” And I thought it was amazing that there are little secrets in the movie that are about cultural specificity. And it’s not just for Korean audiences. There is a scene where Nora is in rehearsal and the play is one that I wrote, so that was a little secret for my theatre friends.

Were there any Canadian easter eggs that I missed?

My costume designer is a Canadian who lives in New York and L.A., so we spent a lot of time talking about the kind of clothing we were wearing when we moved from Canada in the 1990s. Not just Canada, but the suburbs. You see Nora at grad school wearing a Niagara Falls T-shirt, and she wears a necklace with a little bird that we thought felt so Canadian, whatever that means. And of course there is the scene with Pearson International.

That felt so familiar, seeing the airport as it was in the ’80s.

It’s not actually Pearson. It’s in Queens.

I really thought I recognized it!

That means my art team did a great job.

The movie talks about the Korean concept “in-yun.” Can you explain what that is and why you included it?

In-yun is an Eastern philosophical concept: it exists in Korea, but also China, India, Japan. It’s about that ineffable connection that ties us to another person over a series of lives: family members, strangers, the person you end up marrying. I thought it was a good way to describe the relationship between Nora and Hae Sung. They spent time together when they were children, so you can’t call them exes. They’re not partners or lovers. They’re friends, but it’s more than that—it’s in-yun, this connection that endures through time and space.

At one point Nora is flirting with her future husband and she says that in-yun is “just something Koreans say to seduce someone.” Would your own husband recognize that scene from real life?

Ha! No, I haven’t used it like that, but it felt like something Nora would say in that moment.

Do you consider Past Lives to be a love-triangle movie?

I guess it is in structure, but it also subverts the idea. It’s less about the choice between two guys and more the choices she makes for herself and her life.

The movie premiered at Sundance, where it earned stellar reviews. Rolling Stone called it the first great movie of the year. How did the reception compare with your expectations going in?

My expectation was not to have any expectations. I felt like it could go either way. When the film was so well-received, I was so happy. I felt like it wasn’t just me who thinks this is a story worth telling. I wanted to make a movie about ordinary people doing an extraordinary thing, which is loving and caring for each other, and the fact that audiences connected to that is so great.

I’ve heard Oscar buzz. Does the prospect of walking the red carpet during awards season appeal to you?

I think what appeals to me more than anything is getting to make another movie.