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Past Lives: The film on lost love that crosses continents

  • Published
    1 day ago
Image source, StudioCanal

What would you do if you had the chance to reconnect with a childhood sweetheart, even if you were already in love with someone else?

A first-time film director has taken that story idea and made an Oscar-tipped and Bafta-nominated movie out of it.

Past Lives, by Korean Canadian playwright and director Celine Song, is also a bilingual film, made in both Korean and English.

The heroine, Nora, played by American actress Greta Lee, moves from South Korea as a young person to start a new life and learn a new language.


She leaves behind Hae Sung, a childhood friend she has a deep connection with. More than 20 years later, after Nora has met and married an American, Hae Sung announces that he’s coming to visit.

How will Nora, and her husband, feel when she reconnects with a lost love?

Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung

Image source, StudioCanal

Like Nora, Celine Song moved as a 12-year-old from South Korea to North America, and a particular experience inspired her to write the film.

“Past Lives is inspired by this moment where I found myself sitting in a bar in East Village, New York City, sitting between my childhood sweetheart from Korea, who is now a friend, and my husband, who I live with in New York City,” Song explains.

“I was translating between Korean and English for these two people because they don’t speak each other’s language.

“And as I was translating between their language and culture, I also realised that I’m also translating between parts of my own self or parts of my own history.

“And I think that moment really was the inspiration for the whole film.”

When the movie had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago, Past Lives immediately attracted strong critical reviews and Oscar buzz, with The Guardian’s critic Peter Bradshaw describing it as “a story of lost love and childhood crush … the roads not taken, the lives not led, the futile luxury of regret.

“And it’s a movie that speaks to the migrant experience and the way this creates lifelong alternative realities in the mind: the self that could have stayed behind in the old country, versus the one that went abroad for a new future.”

Celine Song

Image source, Getty Images

Song echoes that thought, affirming that “there’s no human villain in the film, the villains in the movie are the 24 years that pass and the Pacific Ocean. There are simply things that are very powerful forces in our lives that we cannot stop.”

American John Magaro and German Korean actor Teo Yoo play the two men in Nora’s life, but Song warns against seeing the story as a classic love triangle script.

“It’s easy to think of the movie just because it has three people in it, as a love triangle.

“But the truth is that it’s not really a movie about love triangle because it’s about a woman who chooses herself, it’s a film about her own self-revelation,” she argues.

“And when it comes to the two men in her life, it’s not a matter of the two of them waiting to be chosen.

“It’s more about how these are two men who hold the key. And it’s a cultural key, but it’s also a historical and a personal key to this one woman.

“It’s about these two men who each hold a key to her that the other guy doesn’t have.

“And when they meet each other, they could either resent each other, or even beat each other up, or they could perhaps say, ‘I’m so glad you’re here. Because only when both of us are here is she able to be fully unlocked’.”

Nora and Hae Sung

Image source, StudioCanal

Song worked as a screenwriter and playwright until she developed Past Lives.

The film is being heavily tipped for recognition in the upcoming Oscar nominations, although it failed to win any Golden Globes. It’s also nominated for three Bafta film awards, including for best original screenplay.

It’s not unheard of for a first-time filmmaker to be nominated and even win a best director or best film Oscar – Sam Mendes’s American Beauty achieved both in 2000.

But Song feels that Parasite’s quadruple Oscar win in 2020 has made recognition more possible for non-English language storytelling. Last year’s best film winner, Everything Everywhere All At Once, was also made in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.

“The language of my film is such as fundamental part of the storytelling,” Song says.

“I’m bilingual, the script is written bilingually, and this film is bilingual because it’s not about people who are able to talk each other’s language.

“I think subtitles have become something that’s not a barrier. That been such an amazing gift for this film.

“Because even when I was writing the script, it wasn’t clear if people would want to watch a movie that is properly bilingual.

“The major script-writing programme I used didn’t really support any alphabet except for the English one, there was kind of a structural way it was telling me that Hollywood wasn’t interested in bilingual stories.

“But now the movie’s out and audiences are clearly connecting to it, that’s the film’s biggest gift.”

Moon Seung-ah and Leem Seung-min

Image source, StudioCanal

Song adds that she hopes that viewers find something universal in the story of Nora reconnecting with her first love as an adult living in a different country.

“Maybe you don’t know what it’s like to cross the Pacific Ocean and move countries – in a way you have to give up a language and a culture. But you’ll know what it’s like not to be 16 anymore, “she says.

“Everybody can feel connected to the feeling that you’re not the person that you were in the past.

“But of course, there are people in your life who hold parts of your past and parts of your life, and they hold them very dear, and they know you like that.

“There are people who you know remember you as a 16-year-old or a 12-year-old. And what a special thing it is that person is holding that part of you forever.

“That’s where the drama in the film comes from.

“I also feel so much less lonely knowing that this is not just something that I felt one night in this one bar, but it’s something that everybody can feel connected to, even in countries that I don’t know the language of.”

Past Lives is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV+, YouTube, Google Play and other online platforms.

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