Celine Song’s Quietly Profound Debut in ‘Past Lives’

A nondescript white man lies in a bed in New York City with his Korean-American wife. “Childhood sweethearts reconnect twenty years later and realize they were meant for each other,” he murmurs, mulling over archetypes in his mind. A pause. “In the story, I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” While she laughs, he stays silent. 

Past Lives, currently playing in theaters around the country, was both written and directed by Korean-American filmmaker Celine Song. The story is semi-autobiographical, following Nora, a playwright who immigrated to the United States from Korea as a child. Twelve years after her departure, she reconnects virtually with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. Twelve more and he visits her in New York. The premise has the potential to melt into something syrupy and sweet, but Celine’s deft hand maneuvers it around any looming pitfalls – instead, the wistful ‘what-ifs’ feel profound, and the entire piece vibrates with a quiet self-reflection.

The premise has the potential to melt into something syrupy and sweet, but Celine’s deft hand maneuvers it around any looming pitfalls – instead, the wistful ‘what-ifs’ feel profound, and the entire piece vibrates with a quiet self-reflection.

This movie marks Celine’s film debut after a successful playwriting career, having premiered Endlings Off-Broadway in 2020 and directing an experimental production of Chekov’s The Seagull on The Sims 4 after Endlingspremature pandemic closure. Nothing quite like the Twitch-streamed video game play had been done before, and in it Celine seemed to broaden the potential of theater away from just “a room in New York.” 

At the same time, she began working on the script that would become Past Lives. Reportedly, when A24 read it they believed the text was so strong that she was the only one capable of bringing it to the screen. The film has garnered almost universal acclaim since its world premiere at Sundance, and Celine has been elevated from promising playwright to one of a handful of filmmakers ushering in the era of female auteurs. 

It is hard to imagine that Past Lives could have been written by a man. The soft meditation of it, the pure emotional connection – small, essential, moments of filmmaking add up to an exemplary depiction of the female gaze. Hae Sung and Nora, reconnecting in their 20s, Skype from thousands of miles away, bringing each other into shared moments via blurry phone screen and bad connection.

There is never even a whisper of physicality in their relationship. Rather, Celine’s primary focus is in the sentimentality and innocence that makes their connection into something monumental. However obvious, it’s a side to love that is all-too ignored in an era that hears ‘romance’ and conjures sex-based rom-coms of the last twenty years like Sleeping With Other People and Friends With Benefits. Celine’s writing, in contrast, calls for a swoon. 

A contributing factor to this romanticism is the central idea of inyeon, a Korean superstition that every person you meet is someone you knew in a past life.

A contributing factor to this romanticism is the central idea of inyeon, a Korean superstition that every person you meet is someone you knew in a past life. Someone you brush shoulders with on the street, Nora explains to her future husband, Arthur, has been tied to you with 8,000 layers of inyeon. Maybe you were married centuries ago. Maybe you were sworn enemies in battle. 

The concept, which sounds like a cliché out of context, is played without any saccharine. “That’s just something Korean people say to seduce each other,” Nora tells Arthur. Nevertheless, the “what-if” of it lingers, creating a loose frame around the rest of the film. When Hae Sung and Nora sit in a bar years later, we wonder if there was a world in which they were meant to be together. 

The self-awareness of Nora’s dismissal, however, is a central trait of Celine’s script that grounds these characters solidly in the real world. This is no nineties rom-com, and it is not a foregone conclusion that our two leads will end up a couple in the end. To that end, Arthur – the American husband aware of the stereotypes he could fall into – is unable to be the story’s villain. In the scene where he lays out how this story might go in a less complex film, it feels like he has broken some unspoken rule of cinema. He may not be our protagonist, but he has no false pretenses about what is going on. It is because of this that it is impossible to actually root for Nora and Hae Sung as a couple, and we are filled with a wistfulness for the impossible without wanting it to go any further. 

This is no nineties rom-com, and it is not a foregone conclusion that our two leads will end up a couple in the end.

Past Lives, then, is a kind of anti-romance, an acceptance of what will never happen. This ‘what-if’ genre of movie seems to have been popping up with more frequency over the last several years, as films like La La Land and Call Me By Your Name have idolized the feeling of wanting, even if having is not in the cards. Perhaps, in the era of dating apps and short-lived situationships, we want to harken back to days of total devotion. Movies like Past Lives almost allow us to believe that soulmates exist. 

There is a lot riding on the moment when Hae Sung finally visits New York, years after the last time they’ve spoken. It also happens to be right after Hae Sung has broken up with his girlfriend. The two adult characters – an effortless Greta Lee and affected Teo Yoo – have never been in the same room as each other, a fact which makes the audience feel as awkward at the reunion as the characters do. In the only heavy-handed piece of filmography from Celine, the two looking at each other is intercut by a clip of the two statues they played on as children, facing each other in a parallel. 

However, this part of the film doesn’t land with satisfaction. Maybe that’s intentional – after all, we’re resisting the fantasy. But seeing Hae Sung, uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place, stumble around things to say and take awkward single-person photos in front of the Statue of Liberty, only reinforces the distance between the two. Cinematographically beautiful shots in front of the carousel in Dumbo are marked with an air of hesitation, as the quietness of the film extends from meditative to stilted. The sadness of the moment is less because they cannot be together; more because they are now not people who should be. 

The movie’s last moment, facing each other, does not end with a kiss. Rather, waiting for an Uber to the airport, Hae Sung asks Nora if this is just one of their past lives, getting ready for the next. Neither of them seems to know. 

© Catherine Sawoski (7/4/23) – Special for FF2 Media®

LEARN MORE / DO MORE

Check out an in-depth profile on Celine here

Read an interview with the entire cast here

See a New York Times piece on Greta Lee (Nora) here.

See clips and interviews about the experimental production of Chekov’s The Seagull on The Sims 4 here.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: (L-R) Teo Yoo, Greta Lee. Credit: Courtesy of A24.

Bottom Photo: (L-R) Greta Lee, Celine Song. Credit: Jon Pack.

Tags: A24, Catherine Sawoski, Celine Song, Chekov, Endlings, Greta Lee, Korea, new york, Past Lives, Sundance, Teo Yoo, The Seagull, Twitch

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Catherine Sawoski is an art critic specializing in theater, literature, and visual arts. She is a senior at Barnard College at Columbia University studying English and Philosophy, and a Deputy Editor for Arts and Culture at the Columbia Daily Spectator. She has covered everything from Off Broadway shows to emerging poets and gallery exhibitions from young female artists. In her free time, you can usually find her at a show somewhere in the city or with her goldendoodle, Amber.
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