Celine Song has thought long and hard about how her current decisions will affect the future. “Who we are now can’t get away from who we once were,” says the director of this year’s indie breakthrough Past lives.
To make her point, she begins to write a scene between her future self and me. “What will happen is that in 20 years we will be having a conversation again about a film I just made,” she tells me. “All I know is you’re going to say, ‘You remember when you were 35 and promoting your first movie, Past lives?’ And if we just look at each other, we will see very clearly what the other was like.” As she imagines it, we will think about where we were at that exact moment – our love, our stress, our probably outdated haircuts. Song continues, “We’re going to remember this Zoom and we’re going to remember I was 10 minutes late. You know what I mean?”
Even if you don’t know what “song” means, she’s happy to take you on that journey, and that’s exactly what she did with audiences in her feature film debut. Past lives. The film follows New York playwright Nora (Greta Lee) as she reunites with her childhood sweetheart (Teo Yoo) – from whom she was separated when her family immigrated to Canada from Korea – and introduces him to her husband. A simple premise, richly rendered, Past lives has become the hottest directorial debut of the year and is a real darling of critics, earning song and lead actor Lee high praise.
At the peak of the year Past lives attended the Sundance Film Festival, the first in-person event since the COVID-19 pandemic. It made the few critics’ “most anticipated” lists and was overshadowed by titles with more spectacular actors (Anne Hathaway! Julia Louis-Dreyfus!) and experienced directors (Ira Sachs! Nicole Holofcener!). As talk of some of the more hyped A-list ventures died down, the question arose: “But have you seen?” Past lives?” began to permeate festival conversations. As the Hollywood crowds flew back from Park City, it was clear that Song’s film was the one seen.
That’s even more impressive Past lives was the first time Song directed anything, let alone a feature film. In the 2010s, Song, who graduated from Columbia University’s MFA program in playwriting, regularly participated in prestigious playwriting residencies and fellowships. Her breakthrough came with her 2019 play Endlingsaround haenyeos, the older female deep divers who catch seafood in South Korea. It was performed off-Broadway at the New York Theater Workshop in 2020 before closing due to the pandemic.
Song’s first foray into Hollywood came just a few years ago as a staff writer on the debut season of the high-fantasy Amazon Prime Video series The Wheel of Time. But without a short film or music video on her IMDb, her feature film script landed at A24, which has a track record of bringing playwrights to the big screen (see Jeremy O. Harris and Zola; Annie Baker and Janet Planet). “When I started, the list of things I couldn’t do was very, very long,” she says.
The filmmaker explained the situation clearly to her leading lady, saying, as Lee recalls, “This is how I’m going to tell a love story.” Shot in 35 millimeters. I’ve never done this before. Do you trust me? Because we will.”
As Song says now: “The cornerstone of making my first film was that when I looked at my short list of things I know, I knew that these were things that only I could know, namely history and Characters.” After all, she’s the one who lived it.
Song had the original idea for it Past lives as she sat in a New York bar with her husband, fellow writer Justin Kuritzkes (his Hollywood bonafides include Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming film). challenger) and her childhood best friend who was visiting from Korea. She was the translator and literal mediator between the two men. “I had become a bridge or a portal between these two parts of myself,” she explains.
The tableau became the opening sequence of Past lives, in which viewers try to guess the connection between Song’s doppelgangers, her white American husband and her Korean childhood friend. “I think the white guy and the Asian girl are a couple and the Asian guy is her brother,” a spokesman suspects. Another says: “Maybe they are tourists and the white guy is their tour guide.”
The scene could just as easily take place on a stage, so why should the playwright bother with the messy business of making a film? “My joke is always that the villain of this story is not a person, but time and space. It’s the 24 years and the Pacific Ocean.” She wanted to represent this time and these spaces literally – and “in the theater it all happens figuratively.”
Of course, this practicality came with its own challenges, including the film’s much-discussed final sequence, a long one-take tracking shot that lasts as Nora walks her boyfriend to his taxi before bursting into tears in her husband’s arms. The film was shot on a Friday night in the East Village, which, as it turns out, was a bold decision. “The East Village is not the place to have your first drink, [it’s] Where are you going for your fifth,” Song explains. Just in front of the screen, as Lee unfolds the film’s emotional climax, there were hordes of drunken bar patrons milling about. Song says, “I have such amazing audio recordings of people asking, ‘Is that?'” Spider-Man?’ ”
Song has already filmed her next film with A24. Details of the plot are still being kept secret, but she doesn’t expect a return to the theater anytime soon. “I didn’t know I knew how to make a film until I did it,” she tells me. “And then when I did it, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to do this until I die.’ ”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to login.