Past Lives’ Director Celine Song Transcends Medium

One year ago today, the film Past Lives began its theatrical release in major American metros after receiving a steady stream of honors on the international film festival circuit. So, FF2 is taking this moment to congratulate writer/director Celine Song for crafting a “little story” that could and did!

Celine Song is a successful director, playwright, and screenwriter who, though only recently widely acclaimed for her contributions, has already proven herself to be a monumental talent in the industry. Her work consistently harnesses autobiographical elements. This offers its audience an intimate, unflinching look into characters’ lives—whether that view be found through a theater stage, a camera lens, or a computer screen.

Celine was born in South Korea in 1988. Brought up in a creative household—both of Celine’s parents were artists themselves—with her father working as a filmmaker. When Celine was 12 years old, she moved with her parents from South Korea to Ontario (Canada). This move away from her homeland, and the cultural shift which accompanied it, finds center stage in Celine’s work, particularly in Past Lives. Staying in Canada through her young adulthood, Celine studied psychology and philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston (Ontario). After completing her undergraduate degree, Celine left Canada for New York, where she obtained her MFA in playwriting from Columbia University in 2014.

In 2016, Celine’s play Tom & Eliza, became a semi finalist for the American Playwriting Foundation’s Restless Award. The piece focuses on a couple, and their falling in and out of love in an increasingly bizarre setting. That same year, Celine became part of the Public Theater’s emerging writers group (a fellowship for playwrights early in their careers). The next year, from 2017 to 2018, Celine’s talent brought her another fellowship, this time with the Playwrights Realm. 

In 2019, Celine’s play, Endlings, premiered at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge (Massachusetts). The play, in part autobiographical, follows two parallel story lines: one the one hand, a Korean-Canadian playwright is living in New York City, and on the other hand, three elderly Korean women are harvesting seafood on the island of Man-Jae. An inventive look into concepts of identity and authenticity, Endlings made Celine a finalist for the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn Prize.

“The Seagull on The Sims 4″ project exemplifies not only Celine’s creativity and humor, but the resilience of both herself and her work.

Unfortunately, though Endlings did make it into an Off Broadway theater, its run at the New York Theater Workshop was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, in a time of live theater grinding to a sudden and violent halt, Celine did not allow the pandemic to tamp down her creative output. In November of 2020, she directed a production of Anton Checkhov’s The Seagull for the New York Theater workshop. However, instead of bringing the classic play to life on stage, Celine realized it through a video game: The Sims 4. Celine directed her production, The Seagull on The Sims 4, on the online game, and streamed it live to audiences via the live-streaming service Twitch. The project exemplifies not only Celine’s creativity and humor, but the resilience of both herself and her work.

Greta Lee as “Nora.”

Around the same time as working on The Seagull, Celine began to work on a film script, which would eventually become Past Lives. In her review of the film, FF2 contributor Catherine Sawoski calls Past Lives a work which, above all else: “vibrates with a quiet self-reflection.” Catherine goes on to say that though the plot, at surface level, “has the potential to melt into something syrupy and sweet,” it is Celine’s direction which allows the work to transcend genre and cliché. 

Past Lives follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two childhood friends who reunite in Manhattan decades after the former has emigrated from South Korea to Canada. Exploring themes of alienation and dissonance, each thread in Past Lives’ is woven together through the concept of inyeon, or, as Catherine explains, “a Korean superstition that every person you meet is someone you knew in a past life.”

Catherine also reveals in her review that, though Celine had never directed a film before, “when A24 read [the script] they believed the text was so strong that she was the only one capable of bringing it to the screen.” A24 was clearly correct in their decision-making. Past Lives premiered to instant critical success, and launched Celine into the mainstage spotlight.” The film received not one but two nominations at the 96th Oscars: Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Additionally, Past Lives has won a slew of other industry awards, such as Sundance’s Vanguard award, Best Director at the Independent Spirit Awards, Outstanding Directing for a First-Time Feature Film by the Director’s Guild of America, Best Feature at the Gotham Awards, and many more.

Outside of film and stage, Celine has worked as a staff writer on television series such as The Wheel of Time (an Amazon-produced fantasy series), and also broke into music-video directing with the singer Laufey’s 2023 song Goddess. Also in 2024, Celine announced her next major project: Materialists, a rom com which will be produced by A24. Already having proven herself as a deft director of romance, Materialists will hopefully be another stunning success. 

Though currently experiencing massive amounts of critical acclaim, Celine Song is far from finished with telling stories which are always extremely personal to her, but also speak to the larger hurts and longings of the general public. After all, even as an early career writer and director, her work has absolutely soared through its resonation with audiences worldwide. We can only wait with barely contained anticipation for what she has in store for us next—be it on the big screen or in The Sims. 

© Reese Alexander (6/2/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Read Catherine’s review of Past Lives here.

Visit Celine’s Wikipedia page here.

Find Celine on X here.

Check out Celine’s Instagram here.

Find streaming options for Past Lives via JustWatch.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Celine won 2024 Independent Spirit Awards in both Best Film and Best Director categories for PAST LIVES (2023) on February 25, 2024. Image Credit: Sthanlee B. Mirador /Sipa USA / Alamy Live News. Image ID: 2WMF2W3

Middle Photo: Greta Lee stars as “Nora” – called “Na Young” as a child in South Korea –  in Celine Song’s film Past Lives. Image Credit: © A24 / Lifestyle pictures / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2T0XK5F

Bottom Photo: Past Lives‘ premiered at Sundance in Jan ’23, then opened at the Berlin Film Festival in Feb ’23 where it was nominated for a prestigious Golden Bear award. Image Credit: Monika Skolimowska / dpa / Alamy Live News. Image ID: 2NGTCXN

Tags: Academy Awards, Canadian Women Filmmakers, Celine Song, Endlings, Goddess, Greta Lee, Laufey, Manhattan-Based Films, Materialists, Past Lives, South Korean Filmmakers, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, The Seagull, The Seagull on The Sims 4, The Wheel of Time, Tom & Eliza

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Reese Alexander is currently a student at Barnard College, where she studies English literature, creative writing, and French. Reese enjoys writing both fiction and nonfiction, and her work has been published in multiple campus publications, including Quarto, Echoes, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Columbia Federalist. Reese is most passionate about medieval literature, as she believes it illustrates the contributions of women artists throughout the centuries.
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