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Celine Song’s romantic debut film ‘Past Lives’ was a path to self-discovery

Celine Song wrote and directed "Past Lives," which opens in Boston this week.Theo Wargo/Getty

You could say that, Celine Song was a playwright in a past life. The Korean Canadian artist’s play “Endlings” world premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 2019. But more recently, she’s been recognized for filmmaking with her debut feature, “Past Lives,” which screened at Sundance and the Independent Film Festival of Boston earlier this year. It opens at select Boston-area theaters this week.

Both “Endlings” and her film are semi-autobiographical. “Past Lives” is about Nora (Greta Lee), a playwright who immigrated from South Korea to Canada when she was 12. Now living in New York, Nora is married to an American author named Arthur (John Magaro) but reunites with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), her childhood friend. Hae Sung represents the life Nora left behind, and through three sections, the film traces their relationship into adulthood. Questions of destiny are central to the complex, not-quite-love-triangle romance and encapsulated in the Korean idea of In-Yun, in which two people’s encounters in past lives determine the course of their current ones.


When writing the film, which is in Korean and English, Song drew from a time when she reconnected with a figure from the past. The opening scene of Nora, Arthur, and Hae Sung getting drinks parallels her experience sitting at a bar between her husband and childhood sweetheart. The film “is a romanticized version of reality,” Song said. Song spoke to the Globe about her path as a director, her approach to personal writing, and creating romantic chemistry.

Celine Song (left) and Greta Lee on the set of "Past Lives."Jon Pack/Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

Q. What has it been like to release this film?

A. It’s so special to have all these strangers feel such connection to the movie, and I feel like I have In-Yun with them because of that. It’s amazing to know that there are so many people in the world who are really excited about the movie. That makes me feel less lonely in some ways, too. And it makes me feel more connected to the movie.


Q. I read that you’d never worked on a film set before. How was the experience of making your first film?

A. It was so magical because it was a revelation to me, too. It was like a discovery of myself, about what I can do, or what I want to do. That to me was my favorite part of making the movie, realizing like, “my god, I didn’t know this about myself, but I am a filmmaker,” and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Q. How have people received the film’s specific elements of Korean culture and language that you included?

A. People who are really familiar with Korean culture [have] been really loving discovering the little secret in the nooks and crannies of the movie that only they understand. For everybody else, I think that it’s very easy to sort of connect to the universality of it. ... We all go through growing up and growing older, and we do move through time and space, whether we like it or not.

Q. Does the process of writing from a personal space change the way that you think about your history and experiences?

A. I think about it as a more clarifying process. It made certain things that I was always sort of thinking about more clear through language. When I’m directing the movie, I’m just very much directing a movie. So the subjective experience of [writing “Past Lives”] was ... helpful for the everyday work of making a movie. The writing of it was subjective, and then the directing of it was an objective experience.


From left: Greta Lee, John Magaro, and Teo Yoo in "Past Lives." Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

Q. What kind of dynamic did you want to build with your three lead actors?

A. Part of the way that I want to work with the actors is to work really intimately and very deeply. I wanted them to be my partners in finding these characters. … I wanted them to have a sense of authority on those characters as well, which I think is coming from my background in theater.

To really build some of the chemistry, I made Teo and Greta not touch each other until we shot the scene where they hug for the first time in Madison Square Park. It really built a little bit of longing in them physically, and I think that that really helped them in that moment. And because the movie is about so many hellos and goodbyes … I made sure that John and Teo met each other for the first time on screen. The first take of the actors meeting for the first time is the take that is in the movie.

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in "Past Lives." Jon Pack/Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films

Q. Going forward, do you want to make more films? Do you want to go back to writing plays?

A. I want to make more films. I want to make things that are different than the thing that I made before. Making a movie is like a three-year process. So that’s three years of my life, and it’s three years of my creative devotion to a project. So I have to believe that it is a project that is smarter than me, as in it has something to teach me or something I can learn from, or that I think has something to give me, too. It has to be something that I really am passionate about and feel like is so personal.


Interview was edited and condensed.

Abigail Lee can be reached at