How a first-time director’s own ‘Past Lives’ inspired one of the year’s best films

Two women stand for a portrait.
Filmmaker Celine Song and actor Greta Lee, who stars in Song’s acclaimed, semi-autobiographical Sundance film “Past Lives,” in theaters Friday.
(Emil Ravelo / For The Times)
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Several years ago at Please Don’t Tell, a speakeasy-style bar in New York’s East Village, filmmaker Celine Song found herself sitting between her white American husband and her Korean childhood sweetheart. Each man flanking her only spoke one language, which left Song, a playwright turned filmmaker, to translate.

And because of what she meant to her companions, who would otherwise have no reason to know each other, they began to wish they were fluent in the other’s tongue.

“I knew that they both loved me in different ways, but neither of them could give me what the other person could in their relationship with me,” Song told The Times during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I’m such a different person to both of them as well.”


A portrait of a woman using a kaleidoscope-type filter.
Filmmaker Celine Song who wrote and directed the semi-autobiographical Sundance film “Past Lives.”
(Emil Ravelo / For The Times)

Bridging East and West, her past and present, English and Korean, the evening led Song to realize that she held a uniquely powerful position, privy to both perspectives. But she also noticed how other patrons and staff stared at them quizzically, as if wondering who the trio were to each other.

“All my life until that moment I thought my bilingualism or biculturalism was a bit of a chip on my shoulders,” said Song. “I felt like it made me powerless, that it was a reason why people weren’t going to care about my writing, or not think that I’m a good artist.”

The decisive spark of inspiration for what would become “Past Lives,” Song’s first feature, a fictionalized version of that triangular conversation bookends the action, which is liberally inspired by Song’s personal journey. In the film, opening Friday, Nora, who immigrated from Korea to Canada with her family as a child, reconnects online with Hae Sung, a boy from her school days in Seoul. As the distance takes its toll, Nora and Hae Sung drift apart once again, only to come together years later for a more definite resolution.

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Born and raised in South Korea, Song, whose birth name is Ha Young, migrated from Seoul to Toronto with her family at age 12. She eventually relocated to New York City to attend Columbia University and pursue her career aspirations, and still resides there with her spouse. Still, that kid version of herself is never entirely gone.


“My childhood happened in a different culture under a different name. It’s a silo or a distinctly separated moment in your life that very much feels like a past life,” said Song. “It feels like a life that was lived before the one that I’m living in now.”

Indeed, though Song at times refers to “Past Lives” as a mystery, in which the audience acts as the detective probing the characters’ most intimate truths, she also sees it as a chronicle of the death for Nora’s inner child. Hae Sung eventually confirms that the Korean girl he once knew is gone, and in turn makes that evident to Nora.

A man and a woman riding the ferry together.
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo in Celine Song’s “Past Lives.”
(Jon Pack/Courtesy of A24)

Yet even as Song introduces Arthur, Nora’s white American husband, and confronts him with Hae Sung’s arrival in New York City, “Past Lives” rejects the conventions of the love triangle. There are no warring alpha males here, or even many raised voices. Instead, the film depicts people grappling with the untidiness of their emotions through Song’s unassumingly poetic dialogue and luminous imagery.

“Sometimes the way that drama unfolds is just a bit of awkwardness and just a bit of care, and just a bit of acknowledgment of what is going on,” said Song. “And it’s not actually throwing a drink or making dramatic gestures or fighting for someone.”


For Song, stepping into the realm of cinema was an invigorating rebirth of its own. The daughter of a filmmaker, who maintains that her Western name was an homage to the character in Jacques Rivette‘s 1974 film “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Song had always intended to become a visual storyteller, but found that in theater the writer is the author every time and opted to go that route first. Behind the camera, however, Song has discovered a profound creative satisfaction that she is certain she was born for. And given its expansive scope, both geographical and temporal, “Past Lives” could only exist as a film.

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“It’s a special movie because it’s my first movie and it’s so personal, but it also taught me that I’m a filmmaker, and to me that discovery is what makes me the happiest,” said Song. “I realized that my limits are a lot further than I always thought about myself in every way.”

Predestination as cause for how one’s path unfolds is key to Song’s worldview and a crucial theme in “Past Lives” — in the form of in-yun, an otherworldly concept popular in Korean culture that attributes even the smallest of exchanges, such as brushing clothes with a stranger walking by, to our previously lived lives.

“The only way to really understand this film is through this very Eastern thought where destiny or connections between people is not something that you seek out or you go get,” Song explained. “It is something that comes to you and you cannot really stop it, but you can find your way in it and appreciate it.”

A portrait of a woman using a kaleidoscope-type filter.
Actor Greta Lee who stars in Celine Song’s acclaimed, semi-autobiographical Sundance film “Past Lives.”
(Emil Ravelo / For The Times)


In-yun is precisely what Greta Lee, extraordinary as Nora, believes drew her to Song’s screenplay when she first read it. Best known for her television roles (“Russian Doll”), Lee, not an immigrant but a first-generation Korean American, credits the hand of destiny for bringing the role back around a year after she initially missed out on the part. When finally asked to talk to Song, she was eager to meet the maker of her in-yun, an idea she was vaguely familiar with before “Past Lives” but now feels strongly attached to.

“Now I can only see in-yun, like you and I now have in-yun,” said Lee. “It’s such a complex and also simple idea that two people can just have that as they walk by each other in a street or as they stand in line at Starbucks.”

In casting the lead, Song sought a soul match for the character on the page, and not someone to do an impression of her. “Greta has in her the kind of burning ambition that the character of Nora needs,” said Song. “She feels like a modern woman who can stand on her own and pave her own path in life.”

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When Lee acted with Korean actor Teo Yoo, who plays Hae Sung, Song directed only in Korean. For Lee, the process was at once a rekindling and a mournful reminder of a part of herself she had mostly suppressed as she took on an Americanized identity as an adult. “There are a lot of people in my life who don’t even know I speak Korean, and this was a surprise reminder to me of, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my birth language,’” said Lee.

Although raised speaking Korean, Lee would later develop what she describes as a “Brooklyn Korean accent,” further complicating her understanding of identity. “I grew up being very critical and criticized for my Korean, like constantly being told, ‘You’re not Korean enough,” said Lee. “While the joke is I’m also being told I’m not American enough.”


That “Past Lives” highlights the multiple facets a single person can contain feels to Lee like a validation of an American reality seldom depicted onscreen. “I’m an Asian American woman, and I’ve always had this inadvisable faith that there’s a way to tell an American story that looks like this, that can come from a place of this cultural specificity where I’m speaking in Korean almost the whole time,” said Lee.

Song, on the other hand, finds that the term “identity” carries an objectifying connotation, as it fails to fully describe a person’s layered selfhood.

Two women stand for a portrait.
Filmmaker Celine Song and actor Greta Lee, who stars in Song’s acclaimed, semi-autobiographical Sundance film “Past Lives,” in theaters June 2.
(Emil Ravelo / For The Times)

“Of course, I would say I am a Korean Canadian American woman filmmaker, but those things could not possibly fully encapsulate what it’s like to really exist in the body that I have in the world that I live in,” explained Song. “With my history, with my family, with my relationship to language, with my connection to my own community.”

Now that her remarkably specific and subtly lyrical debut has beguiled audiences at the Berlin and Sundance film festivals, Song has confirmed for herself that the impetus to decipher why we love who we love, when and how, transcends specificities of time and space: Everyone can recognize an in-yun with “Past Lives.”

“What I’ve loved is that everybody has a very different experience to share with me, but they all point to the same thing, which is that ineffable feeling of being connected to someone without there being a simple way to explain it,” said Song.