In the middle of discussing her latest film, “Past Lives” writer and director Celine Song briefly interrupts herself to ensure she understands her audience – in this case, me, her interviewer. “I’m assuming you’re Korean American,” she guesses, amusing me with her reasoning: “Your last name is Kim.”
The momentary exchange sets the stage for a profound exploration of the cultural nuances and shared experiences that shape “Past Lives,” the latest testament to A24’s pioneering efforts in bringing more untold narratives to the screen.
While watching the film, which makes its nationwide debut today, audience members will find themselves immersed in a poignant story that delves into themes of love, identity and destiny, as well as the different ways they intertwine.
Nora (played by Greta Lee), a Korean Canadian immigrant, finds herself torn between two worlds – one she clings to and one she’s grown into – after reconnecting with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) while happily married to Arthur (John Magaro). At its core, the concept of “in-yun,” or the Korean word for fate, as explained by Nora, serves as the force that brings these characters together. With its intricately woven storyline, “Past Lives” leaves room for a multitude of viewing experiences that, for some, resonate far deeper than others.
Both Song and Lee joined me to discuss some of these more intimate layers of the film, shedding light on aspects that may have been overlooked by some viewers.
Warning: This article contains spoilers.
“Past Lives” presents a unique language divide, with Nora switching between English and Korean. As Nora emigrates from South Korea to Canada, then later to New York City, the film captures the distinctive imagery associated with each phase of her evolving sense of identity. Language emerges as the primary conduit, connecting Nora to different worlds.
Nora’s Korean is effortless, quickly transitioning from one language to another as circumstances dictate. She even acts as a translator when she notices her different worlds colliding. It is in her conversations with Hae Sung that those familiar with the language might be able to pick up on the subtlest details that distinguish her accent from that of native speakers – the rhythm of her speech, variations in pitch at the end of her sentences.
Lee, like many second-generation immigrants, initially spoke her parents’ native tongue as her first language, only to see fluency gradually fade while assimilating into an English-dominated society. When asked about the preparation required to make her Korean sound so effortless, Lee shed light on the importance of language in portraying her character beyond mere proficiency.
Bringing on the expertise of translator Sharon Choi, acclaimed for her work alongside Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, the prep work revolved less around ensuring Lee’s Korean was up to par and focused more on making sure it conveyed the immigrant experience.
“In lieu of a more conventional dialect coach who is going to ‘fix’ the way I sound, it was more about bridging cultural gaps and figuring out: OK, so if she immigrated at this time, she would sound like this and she’d say it like this.”
Rather than “trying to fix it or be something that I’m not,” Lee found herself asking, “How do I capture the right tone to say these gorgeous words that Celine had written in exactly the right way and trusting that the Korean that I had already was enough?”
With Song’s personal experience as a Korean Canadian immigrant serving as a major source of inspiration for the story, the director played a crucial role in fine-tuning these aspects to ensure authenticity.
“I could really go on forever about the linguistics part of it – the immigrant experience of what language is and just the difference between the way Celine, Sharon and I are all Korean, yet all of us sound so different. Having Celine as a tool in terms of that was essential,” Song shares.
The collaboration mirrors the powers of in-yun, which the director says is represented by all of her encounters with the cast and crew. The trifecta of Song’s inspiration, the portrayal by the actors and the efforts behind the scenes aligned seamlessly to bring the story to life.
Besides the delivery of these lines, the resurgence of foreign language films in the West has sparked numerous discussions on the accuracy of translations and just how well they capture the essence of the original script.
But in “Past Lives,” the film’s subtitles require audiences to experience the film beyond translation. Consider the way the subtitle for “oppa” appears – a Romanized version with no English translation, as none exists. This choice acknowledges the limitations of subtitles in capturing the cultural layers, where direct translations simply do not work.
As I watched these moments unfold onscreen, I couldn’t help but look around at the diverse crowd surrounding me, wondering if others felt they were missing out. To that, Song says it’s a “secret” she’s excited to have with select audience members.
What’s amazing is that the movie doesn’t have to be everything for everyone. It can be something that is special for you in a specific way and then for another person in a different way.
But these kinds of secrets are not limited to “cultural specifics,” she proposes. The same goes for other elements depicted in the film, like the unique ways we embrace our loved ones and the feelings we get from that sort of imagery.
“Our relationship specifics, like the scene where Arthur is grabbing onto Nora in bed – it was my director of photography who said, ‘You know that vibe? You know what it is when you’re hanging on to your girl like that,’” Song explains. “And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s such a specific image that I think somebody who has maybe been in that situation can really connect to.’”
“Similarly, there are really ‘Korean Korean’ aspects of the movie that are just meant for you. I’m not worried about that going over [viewers’] heads because I know that at least for you, it can be a special thing that you’re catching on to,” she adds.
Despite our efforts, not all of these secrets can be readily shared.
There were moments with Nora that resonated with such authenticity, mirroring fragments of private conversations I’ve had with my own Korean American friends, free from the need to code-switch.
In one particular scene of “Past Lives,” as Nora debriefs her encounter with Hae Sung, she speaks of him in a manner I never experienced among such varied listeners.
“Korean Korean,”Nora says to describe him.
“He’s masculine but in a Korean way.”
“I feel so not Korean with him but somehow more Korean.”
There’s a general understanding of what it means to be Korean or to be Korean American. But it’s only through a Korean American lens that we can uniquely comprehend what it means to be “Korean Korean.” The term encapsulates a set of mannerisms, values and even appearances – a vibe, if you will – that are so distinctive yet difficult to articulate. I posed the challenge to Song, wondering if there is a way or even a need to make it more accessible to a broader viewership.
“I don’t know if there is a word, a series of words that I can say that wouldn’t flatten this really alive thing that was happening between you and me,” Song says. “I think being a part of a culture and being a part of a community, I think that you’re able to just say certain words and really understand that specifically within our context… it has to do with the secret knowledge.”
For Lee, it’s the kind of storytelling that drew her to the script upon first read.
“I don’t know if you can imagine practically what that experience is like – trying to read while your eyes are brimming with tears is actually kind of difficult to do mechanically,” she says.
“The opportunity to be able to portray and show without explaining or without catering to a white gaze or explaining my immigrant experience – it’s so rare. I’ve never really seen it in that way,” she continues. “Even just the scenes where I’m speaking in Korean but showing specifically a very specific cultural experience of being bilingual and being bicultural and being Korean American.”
“All of those exchanges where in one scene I would start out sounding more American in my Korean and by the end of presumably hours talking to Hae Sung in Korean, that I would then morph into a more Korean version of the character… getting to show that was really exciting and… very radical and something that I had never encountered before.”
It’s never about, like, OK, let me teach you something about being Korean. It’s all just with the ultimate goal of telling a love story and something that, you know, I really believe that everyone can connect to universally. This idea of what it is to fall in love.
Perhaps it was due to the timing of these discussions – only hours after catching the screening, when I was still reeling from that bittersweet ending – that I couldn’t contain my desire for further exploration of these characters.
“It’s open-ended,” I state to the filmmaker herself. To this, she tells me that interpretations of the ending entirely depend on the viewer.
“I wonder about the ‘open-ended’ because I think that Hae Sung is going home to Korea and Nora is going home to her husband, Arthur,” Song says. “What to me is interesting is that when you feel like that, I think that might say something about how you feel about your life and the connections that you have and maybe what you’re hoping that you’re able to find in your life.”
“Depending on who you are, where you are in your life, what kind of relationship you’re in and what kind of relationship to love you have, as well as how openly you walked into the theater – I think those are all going to determine how you walk out of the theater,” she continues. “I don’t expect everybody to walk away feeling the same thing. But I think that, hopefully, you’re able to let the story get under your skin and be a part of the characters, are part of the part of the story and in a deep way.”
“Maybe that’s a ‘me problem’ then,” I muse. Song’s words leave me wondering what it was about my own life that left me wanting more for Nora than comfort in the arms of her devoted husband.
Was I such a sucker for drama that I would have preferred her running off into the sunset with Hae Sung? Could it be that the prospect of Nora coming to happier resolutions on her journey of self-discovery would serve as hope in my own endless search? Or was it simply difficult for me to watch a character who hits so close to home end up in tears?
Lee’s perspective potentially provides more insight.
“What Nora experiences when she’s saying goodbye is essentially to her Korean self,” she declares. “That’s something that I was experiencing in real time while making the movie. Just reconciling with the fact that, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m speaking in Korean again’ to this extent and acknowledging how much I’d been missing it. And I still miss it. Now that we’ve wrapped, my life isn’t set up to be speaking in Korean in that way.”
Part of the devastating and painful truth of my own experience is how much detachment I have with my Koreanness in terms of language, how much of a loss I’ve experienced well into my adulthood now living in America – that is part of the essence of the movie.
As we wrap up the interview, Lee warmly tells me, “I feel like I could talk to you for much, much longer.”
Perhaps by the mysterious workings of in-yun, we’ll be able to continue the conversation another time.
Grace Kim is a New York-based Entertainment Contributor for NextShark
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