It is not uncommon for a Sundance premiere film to compete in the Berlinale. Yet, filmmaker Celine Song’s voyage with “Past Lives,” which won critical acclaim in Park City and makes its worldwide debut in Berlin, feels like a new phenomenon. She’s a first-time director. There are no huge names in her film. And it is unabashedly personal.
Song, who told Variety, “Whatever I do, I have to pretend it’s the first time I’m doing that kind of thing.” Since her Off Broadway play “Endlings” closed early due to the epidemic, she has written for Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time” and staged a production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” fully within the Sims 4 universe on Twitch.
Thus “Previous Lives” feels fresh and innovative, but it’s also rooted in timeless themes about love and fate. It is integrally informed by Song’s own life as it traces the decades-spanning, continent-spanning bond between childhood sweethearts Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo).
She, like Nora, is a playwright who moved to Canada as a child from Korea and now lives in New York with her American writer husband. But, the thought that it might be too precise to be relatable didn’t bother her.
“Yes, there’s a chance it won’t reach your target demographic. But it’s always a leap of faith; I feel that if you’re completely honest about your experience and attempt to convey it as exactly and plainly as possible, it will resonate with people.”
Nonetheless, the film’s composition has a beauty that is as much about what is left out as it is about what is included, an economy of vision that may have been aided by Song’s theatrical background. “Isn’t there a distinction between truth and facts?
That’s something you think about in theater every time because you’re producing in an empty, black-box room while attempting to express the entirety of what it’s like to be a person.
” Yet, “Past Lives” was not intended for the stage. “I never thought of it as a play because of the settings, the dichotomy of Seoul and New York being so far apart yet yet so close,” Song explains.
The two male characters, Hae Sung and Arthur (John Magaro), Nora’s eventual husband, embody these contrasts, but Song was cautious to have them live beyond their function as signifiers.
“Hae Sung is a regular guy who, to me, is heroic since all he asks of Nora is to love her.” And, while she admits it would have been easy to “villainize that specific character,” Arthur is “someone who can be believable as still being capable of such a remarkable amount of love.”
The link between the two, however, is Nora herself, and “Past Lives” has the excellent merit of portraying Nora’s cultural mix as a source of strength rather than angst. It, too, comes from within, as evidenced by her recollection of being in a pub with her husband and a long-separated Korean friend.
“I felt immensely powerful sitting there, being the bridge between these two men, but also these two cultures and these two languages, you know?” That scene formed the film’s iconic opening sequence.
“It was the first scene I wrote, and it opened the remainder of the film,” Song adds. Because we were such an odd threesome, the people serving us and the other customers were staring at us, wondering who we were to each other.
And I was thinking, “Oh man, if you guys only knew!” As a result, “Previous Lives” became a tool to tell everyone. “That was the starting point: oh, you have no idea, so let me tell you…”