It’s rare for a directorial debut to garner the kind of critical acclaim that Celine Song’s Past Lives has. Recent examples of first-time directorial success include Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, Jordan Peele's Get Out or Ari Aster’s Hereditary. And if these filmmakers’ career trajectories are anything to go by, Song is one to watch.
Since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the New York City-based Korean-Canadian director’s first feature film Past Lives has already made her the focus of Oscar talk, and one of the most sought-after screenwriters and directors in the industry.
Song describes the film to Broadsheet as “a story in three goodbyes”. It follows Nora, who immigrates from South Korea to Canada with her family at age 12, before eventually moving to New York City. The young Nora is played by actor Moon Seung-ah and Greta Lee (Russian Doll, Morning Wars, Girls) plays the character as an adult.
The film also stars John Magaro (First Cow, Showing Up), as Nora’s Jewish-American husband Arthur, and German actor Teo Yoo (Decision To Leave) as her Korean childhood sweetheart Hae Sung, who after many years of estrangement, visits Nora in her new city. The film, which is in both English and Korean, opens on a wide shot of Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung sitting together at a bar. The audience can’t hear what they’re talking about, and are invited to speculate on their relationship. What follows is a beautiful exploration of what people leave behind as they move through the world.
Song was in town for five days as part of Melbourne Film Festival after attending the film's New Zealand premiere at NZIFF. We met with the filmmaker for her first Melbourne interview, just hours after her flight landed. Mild spoilers ahead.
I wanted to ask you about the opening scene of the movie, I think we’ve all played that game before. Did you always know that’s how you would open the film?
It was the first scene that really broke the whole thing open for me. Because structurally, usually I have to figure out what the movie is before I can do anything else. [The screenplay] sort of came together by that first scene, which is the first thing that I wrote. And that’s kind of how I knew I could write the rest of it.
That moment is meant to be a bit of an invitation or an implication of the audience in the story, so they feel like they’re participating in it. And of course, they’re being welcomed into the mystery of the movie. And the mystery of the movie is: who are these three people to each other?
Had you been sitting with the story for a long time? Did you have pieces throughout your life where you thought, “I think I’m going to do something with this one day?”
I found myself sitting at the bar, sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my husband. And I remember feeling even in that moment, “Huh, it feels like something really special is happening in this room and happening through all three of us.” I sort of put it away in a bit of a maybe pile, which I usually put those things into. There’re some things in the maybe pile that stay and some things in the maybe pile that fall away. This one was the one that stayed.
You’ve written plays for theatre in the past, but not directed them. Did you always have a sense that you would be good at communicating visually?
The short answer is, I think, “yes.” Because [play]writing, it’s also dramatic writing. So it’s set in time and space and I think because of that, I think that I always had an idea of that. I always knew what was going to work and what looks good.
Were you nervous about putting out something that’s quite personal and with a main character whose life mirrors yours, to an extent?
Sometimes there’s a desire [from audiences] to sort of connect it so directly to myself. And it’s like, “No, that’s a character that I worked on with Greta [Lee].”
I talk about it as an adaptation of my life or something. When it’s something like that then I think there’s a very easy way for people to be like, “You must just be like that person.”
But actually, the process of making a movie is so much about the objective experience. In this case, it was the subjective experience of sitting between my childhood sweetheart and my husband and that, of course, has to then go through the objectification of becoming a script, and then further objectification of becoming a movie.
I wanted to talk about how you shot the Skype scenes between Nora and Hae Sung, it’s so alive. How did you achieve that?
I think that’s because it’s actually live performance. So, they are actually acting with each other. We built two sets, one was Nora’s dorm room and the other was Hae Sung’s bedroom, and we connected the two screens with a cable. Then we put a throttle on it to make the connection crappier. There was a bit of a booth – it was kind of a bit of a DJ booth – where you could fuck with the connection so that it’s crappy.
There’ll be moments where the image freezes, and we were controlling that as well. The actors didn’t really know when it was coming, but they knew that it was coming. So sometimes you would just surprise them with the freezing of the images.
Was it hard to get a bilingual film made?
Audiences are less worried about subtitles than maybe they used to be, even five years ago. It really never posed itself as a problem.
When I first started writing the script, Final Draft [the screenwriting software], I don’t know if this is still true, but it didn’t support any other alphabet. It didn’t support Korean language so I couldn’t write it in Korean. When something like Final Draft, which is the industry standard, does not support another language then it makes the person who’s trying to write something bilingually feel like they don’t want your movie. And that’s something that I felt.
There’s a line in the film that Nora’s mum says before they leave Korea. “You have to leave something behind to gain something, too.” How do you think about that in your own life as well as in the film?
Even though the story of an immigrant like Nora is something that feels so vast – because it’s the Pacific Ocean, it’s a different language, a whole country and a whole continent – I think any time someone has moved from one place to another or from a time in their life to another time, that is all connected to the thing that the movie is interested in.
Maybe your job used to be as a lawyer and then now you’re a chef. Or you used to live in Perth and now you live in Melbourne. It can be something within the same country and with the same language and everything. It’s as simple as, “Well, I used to be 16, now I’m 60.” There’s a part of it where we all have a little bit that we leave behind almost every moment and every day that we do anything.
The ending felt very peaceful.
Yeah, it is. I think that’s really the thing. I talk about it as a movie that’s in three goodbyes. And two of those goodbyes are bad goodbyes, because the first time they say goodbye they’re too young to do it properly. They don’t have the language or the depth of anything to really know how to do it properly because they’re 12.
The second time they say goodbye, they hurt each other, also because of the potential of them maybe becoming romantically connected. And only when it comes to the final goodbye, are they actually able to say goodbye properly.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.