Celine Song was 12 when she moved from South Korean to Ontario. Her parents gave her the chance to pick a new first name. There are differing theories among her family about how she (then Ha Young) settled on Celine.
“My dad insists it’s from a French film, ‘ Célline and Julie Go Boating,’ ” says Song, whose father is a filmmaker. “But I feel like there just happened to be a Celine Dion CD lying around.”
The adjustment was difficult at first. Song, accustomed to being an accomplished student, had to learn English. It wouldn’t be until years later – after Song had become an up-and-coming playwright, moved to New York and gotten married – that she fully grasped something different about her cultural bifurcation.
Song was sitting in an East Village bar with her white American husband and a childhood sweetheart from Korea, who had come to visit. Neither spoke the other language so Song was their only bridge, the only way they could communicate and the only reason this unlikely threesome had been brought together.
“I remember feeling this thing that I’ve always felt: a chip on my shoulder about being ESL or not having grown up with the English language,” says Song. “But then I was sitting there thinking: No, I feel so, so powerful. I felt like a magician or a superhero type. These two worlds are collapsing – time and space is folding on itself – because of me. And I didn’t have to do anything except exist. I just had to be me and that was enough.”
Song begins her directorial film debut, “Past Lives,” by dramatizing that moment. From there, her movie, drawing heavily from her own life, dives through flashbacks that led these characters together and the twists and turns that might have so easily taken them somewhere else.
“Past Lives,” a breakout hit of the Sundance Film Festival and one of the year’s most acclaimed films, is both an uncommonly thoughtful love story and an unusually soulful immigrant tale.
Greta Lee stars as Nora, a Korean-Canadian playwright loosely modeled on Song, who, as she grows up, sporadically reconnects with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), a friend from her childhood in Seoul. When he comes to New York 24 years later, Nora is happily married to Arthur (John Magaro). The visit doesn’t erupt a melodramatic love triangle but spawns something gentler and more ineffable about love, destiny and identity.
“For me to explain who we are to each other can’t be done in a sentence,” Song said in a recent interview. “I can’t just say identity, identity, identity. It’s so much more about what it’s like to exist as three people and what’s it like for all of them to behold the other people in the trio.”
For the trio of Song, Lee and Yoo, the making of “Past Lives” was also an experience of profound connection.
Lee, the 40-year-old “Russian Doll” actor, was born in Los Angeles to Korean immigrants. Yoo was born and raised in Germany but, after marrying a Korean woman, has for years lived in Seoul. Each knows plenty about living with two cultures and in the space between.
“When I read the script, I loved so much that it wasn’t in service of any sort of gaze, like a white gaze or a male gaze,” says Lee. “It was just telling a very universal story about destiny and what it is to fall in love that felt very freeing, like it cracked open the possibility of showing a kind of immigrant experience in a very quiet but also bold way that isn’t performative or finger-pointing.”
Lee has been especially praised for her subtle, restrained performance as a woman not pulled between two romantic interests but casting a glance toward her past before plunging forward into her future as an artist. Song considers the movie a series of goodbyes where the first attempts don’t stick. She even sees it as a “CSI”-like “conformation-of-death movie where you lift the sheet up on the dead body.”
Lee had never connected so much with a role – a gift but also a fearful proposition.
“It had to be completely naked in order to achieve this level of clarity and simple honesty,” Lee says. “There’s no mask.”
Lee instead expresses the roiling emotions of Greta underneath. As grounded as “Past Lives” is, conversations between Lee and Song turned cosmic in contemplating ways to capture something larger.
“The joke that started it was: How can we tell this story in a way that feels sci-fi, that suspends convention of genre, that feels like we’re talking about something much bigger than a love triangle?” Lee says. “We talked about portals. Truly. Jumping through time and space.”
Song, whos e 2020 play “Endings” also featured an autobiographical playwright character, went to some extremes to lead her cast into organic, naturalistic performances. She had Yoo and Magaro meet for the first time on camera, to mimic the awkwardness of their characters encountering each other. And since Nora and Hae have an intense but unacted upon attraction, Yoo was also prohibited from physically touching Lee.
“I think Celine was kind of a sadist,” says Yoo, laughing.
Yoo found himself in the ironic position of playing a traditional Korean man, the opposite of what he typically plays in Korea given his European upbringing. He grew up, he says, with a melancholy feeling of displacement that he couldn’t pinpoint until he was 15 and saw Korean and Hong Kong films on TV.
“Even though it was dubbed in German, there was a cinematic grammar that I understood where I didn’t feel lonely anymore,” says Yoo. “That shaped the path of me wanting to become an actor.”
In “Past Lives,” Yoo is actually speaking his third language, Korean. To him, his life has grown richer in its multiplicity. Speaking German, English and Korean, he says, is like “colors that crossfade into each other.”
“I had to relearn my identity. I had a kind of reverse culture shock,” he says of moving to Korea. “But there’s a beauty in learning out of the struggle. Your emotional color palette kind of widens.”
Expressing that kind of complexity of identity was what Song hoped to do in “Past Lives.” The story isn’t a simple dichotomy of American verse Korean life. The language of identity, Song says — like the label of “Korean-Canadian” — can be limiting. Her life, like anyone’s, is also filled with roads not taken and relationships not chosen.
“I could have also stayed in Canada. I could have fully moved to LA. I could have decided that I wasn’t going to marry my husband. There are just so many ways that our path can happen,” says Song, who lives with her spouse in New York. “In my case, it’s a just a little more extreme because it’s straight up a continent away.”
“Past Lives,” she says, is about seeing people as individuals. “To me, it’s about three people who work really, really hard to treat each other as adults and not put themselves first in interacting with each other,” Song says. “That kind of a thing happens in real life all the time, and it’s always moving.”
The characters in the movie speak often of the concept of in-yun, which relates to all encounters, even brief ones, being destined connections with the potential to reverberate. The most powerful in-yun in “Past Lives,” though, turns out to be the connection between Song and a movie camera.
“It felt like something crashed on me. It felt like such a revelation,” says Song of filmmaking. “It was like meeting the love of your life.”