Teo Yoo (left) and Greta Lee are Hae Sung and Nora, two childhood sweethearts who reconnect in “Past Lives.”

Director Celine Song on the Love Behind ‘Past Lives’

The debut filmmaker talks to writer Carolyn Hinds about her new film, a love story for the ages, but not in the way you think

Teo Yoo (left) and Greta Lee are Hae Sung and Nora, two childhood sweethearts who reconnect in “Past Lives.”

Courtesy of A24

Words by Carolyn Hinds

Off screen, a couple can be heard speculating about the relationship between three strangers sitting across from them at the bar in a crowded restaurant.

The couple wonders if these three similarly aged people—two men (one Asian, the other white) and their companion, an Asian woman—are in some way involved romantically, and if so who’s dating who. And right at this moment, the woman looks right at the couple, and the audience.

This scene opens the intriguing romantic drama Past Lives (which premiered at the 2023 Sundance International Film Festival), the directorial debut of writer Celine Song. Born in South Korea, Song immigrated to Ontario, Canada, with her parents. She stayed there until her ambitions moved her to Hollywood, to pursue a career as a writer, first for the popular supernatural drama Wheel of Time.

Inspired by her own story of romance, passion for writing, curiosity about the dynamics of male and female relationships, and immigration, Song created a film about three people who all are caught in a sort of unidentified limbo.

There’s Nora, played beautifully by Greta Lee, a 20-something aspiring playwright in New York married to Arthur, a fellow writer she met during a retreat. Arthur is endearing in a very unassuming way that makes actor John Magaro’s portrayal of him just as intriguing as that of the other man in Nora’s life, Hae-sung. Coming in and out of Nora’s life like a gust of wind blowing through a house, actor Yoo Tae-oh’s Hae-sung has a strong physical presence, which makes his quick-to-smile, but shy and almost self-effacing way of being draws people to him.

These three people provide a fascinating look at how relationships between men and women can be both complex and simple. Confusing and comforting. Scary and freeing. I spoke with Song about how she explores these aspects of relationships, romances, love, and the importance of closure in Past Lives.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Carolyn Hinds: I love this film for many reasons, but one thing specifically is that I think it's not necessarily just about the normal idea of romantic relationships between men and women. I think it's more about the bonds people create with one another, whether they are between men and women or not, and the whole idea people have that men or women can't be just friends.

To me Past Lives is about showing that men and women can be just friends, even if the men may have once had romantic interests in their female friends, as Hae-sung did with Nora. I think the film shows that exes can have friendships with the new loves in their former loves’ life. So let’s get into it. Talk to me about coming up with this story and making it about more than the typical idea of romantic relationships.
Celine Song: I think that's so true, because I feel like romance doesn't have to only exist for people who end up dating and being together, because that's not the limit of our romantic life. Actually, I feel like sometimes romance can be like, you go to a bookstore and it reminds you of another bookstore that you remember from your childhood. You’re like, “How amazing that there's this bookstore around the corner that opened. How fortunate. How lucky.” Or a restaurant that closes, then reopens. There's a [sense of] romance in that, too.

I think it is sometimes about places that you live, too. And of course, when it comes to people, it's also like sometimes [that] you make eye contact with somebody who's in the street, and then you say, “Hey, do I know you from somewhere?” And then you realize that no, [it’s] just that that person reminds you of someone else, and there's even romance in that. So, I think romance can be a part of all our lives in such a way that doesn't have to be labeled by boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner, you know? Like you don't need those things to really feel connected to other people in a way that’s ineffable, and completely magical, too.

I think romance can be a part of all our lives in such a way that doesn't have to be labeled by boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner, you know? Like you don't need those things to really feel connected to other people in a way that’s ineffable, and completely magical, too.

CH: Do you think it has to do with how the word “romance” is used these days with the modern context being used more in the context relating to eros love?

Because there’s the idea of romantic love being only about sexual relationships and sexual connections with each other, whereas in previous eras, say before or during Shakespearean times, or afterwards like in the 1800s, romance was also about having a deep, truly platonic connection with someone. Using your analogy of a bookstore, where you just feel comfortable in the space, you know, feeling comfortable around people without sex being involved. It was about having what I’d call a soul bond with others.

CS: I completely agree with that actually. It makes me think of the Romans, and Sturm und Drang, and the idea of romance, which is this idea that it's so much more about time and space, and the way that we as people are contending with it as heroes. That's really where the original idea of romance came [from], but I think over time it became about sexual and erotic love sort of [taking] center stage for when we talk about romance. I think it really shifted things, and I think it also has to do with the way that capitalism is a part of our romantic life now. We have the apps, or the way that we talk about dating.

It’s really infiltrated the way that we think about love and relationships changing, where it’s so much more about attaining something, right? I really wanted this movie to not be about dating. I want it to be about love. I want it about the love that we feel for each other without having the possessive or ownership [connotation] that we’ve sort of been trained to think about love, because dating is really more than love. The love can exist without that.

Writer and director Celine Song

Matthew Dunivan

CH: Exactly.

CS: Love can exist without it having the erotic sexual consummation, because this is love that endures through time and space.

CH: Yes!

CS: They [still] know each other even after decades. And to me, I'm like, if that's not love, I don't know what is. And it doesn't mean that they have to kiss or have sex for them to have the fullest version of love that can exist, because love is there. Their love is pure. It's not ruined by anything. It's actually just something that happens over time in space. I understand why the audience might feel like it's the only way to show that love is real, by kissing. But I think this movie, hopefully, is an argument about actually, no, it isn’t. This is why I introduced the word In-yun. There are just certain things in life that do not necessarily have to be consummated in a traditional way, or in a way that we can all understand for it to be complete.

How amazing that Hae-sung flew 14 hours to be here to be able to move on from the possibility of this girl that he loved. I think there's amazing things that can happen from this. To me, I do think of it as a happy ending, but I think we can only think of it as a happy ending if you're willing to accept the idea of romance and love in a way that is original, in the original fundamental way that you and I are talking about romance and love, right? And not this new, like, app kind of dating.

CH: I think the story is more about Hae-sung and getting closure for himself. Something that I think you do so smartly, is to show how Nora, who starts out as Na-young (Moon Seung-ah), is the one who leaves.

For Na-young, immigrating to Canada with her family was like an exciting adventure, but for Hae-sung who’s literally left on the steps leading up to his home, his world shifts because he’s lost his best friend, and without a proper goodbye. Because of that, I saw him as being stuck in that moment, and he thought about her constantly throughout the remainder of his childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. He never had closure.

CS: Yes. I feel like you understand it so completely, and I feel like this is something that I don't always get to talk about because I feel like people don't understand that. It is Hae-sun who’s driving this connection, right? He’s the one who went looking for her. He’s the one who’s flying 14 hours to be there for her.

CH: Flying 14-plus hours to see her, that’s dedication right there.

CS: That is dedication right there, and the thing is he's not going there for her. He's going there because he knows that they're owed a proper goodbye, because he didn't get a proper goodbye and I think that that really haunted him.

In the meantime I don’t think Nora knew that she herself needed to move on until that final scene of the film. She didn’t know until Hae-sung came, because she was someone that was moving [away], and I don't think she knew that she needed to say goodbye to the little girl (her younger self) that she left behind, and Hae-sung being there reminded her of that.

It’s in that moment she gets to have a moment of grief where she gets to say goodbye to the little girl that she never got to say goodbye to, and that’s a gift that Hae-sung gives to her. This is why his arc is the heroic arc.

He’s the one giving Nora, and also by extension Arthur as well, the chance to say goodbye to that girl, and also to sort of say hello to her as well. I think there's something complete about that.

It’s in that moment she gets to have a moment of grief where she gets to say goodbye to the little girl that she never got to say goodbye to, and that’s a gift that Hae-sung gives to her. This is why his arc is the heroic arc.

CH: Yes. There’s resolution for those chapters of their lives. Another thing I’d like us to discuss is how you lit the film using dark and light. In the scene where young Hae-sung is left on the steps, he’s kind of in the shadows representing him being stuck in the past as he watches her walk away and not look back, while Na-young and her patch ahead is covered in sunlight.

Similarly, in the future when they first reconnect, he’s once again in the dark, this time sitting in his room lit only by his computer screen, and she’s at home in her living room with her mother sitting beside her. What makes that scene so interesting to me is that Hae-sung is the one that was actively looking for her, while she was just playing around on Facebook looking for her old Canadian schoolmates. She couldn't even remember his name. It was her mom who remembered Hae-sung, and to me that kind of shows her mentality in that she had never really thought about him, while she was still always on his mind.

CS: Yes, it’s dawn on her side, and on his side the sun is setting. So you're seeing change but it's in a different way.

CH: In the beginning we talked about the concept and understanding of romance and romantic relationships, and one of the things about this film I appreciate is that it provides a way for people to look at relationships differently. A lot of people could look at Hae-sung and Nora, and their relationship as something for Arthur to be jealous of, but I don't think he was jealous at all.

CS: Yes. It's also a gift for Arthur, because Nora is becoming more complete in some way as a person, and that is such an amazing thing [because] Arthur is smart enough to recognize that. Which is why Arthur says to Hae-sung, “It was the right thing to do and I’m glad you came here.”

CH: Right. He's getting to see her speak fluently in Korean, and communicating with another Korean person in a way that he wasn't able to see her do before. It’s showing how you can be accepting of the people in our spouse’s or partner’s lives, and everything doesn't have to be about jealousy. I think Arthur was just like, “Wait, this guy's opening up a whole new side of my wife that I never got to see before. I get to experience her fully now.”

CS: Exactly. It can be about the generosity of spirit.

Published on July 26, 2023

Words by Carolyn Hinds

Carolyn is a Tomatometer-Approved Critic, Journalist, Podcaster and YouTube. Her published work can be found on Observer, ButWhyTho?, Shondaland, Salon and many other. She’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), co-hosts So Here’s What Happened Podcast! and is the host of Carolyn Talks…, and Beyond The Romance Podcasts. You can find her regularly live tweeting her current Asian drama watches using #DramasWithCarrie, and the weekly Sci-Fi watch along with #SaturdayNightSciFi.