© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Past Lives' is inspired by filmmaker Celine Song's own experience with a childhood friend


The love triangle - it's the explosive shape at the heart of countless romantic comedies and dramas. But as NPR's Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi reports, a new film called "Past Lives" offers a more subtle take on the lives we choose and the ones that get away.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: "Past Lives" opens in a moody, low-lit New York City bar. There, we see a woman sitting between two men wrapped in quiet conversation. As the camera slowly zooms in, we hear others in the room puzzling over how exactly this odd throuple might be connected.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Who do you think they are to each other?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, this is a hard one.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: As the film's Korean Canadian writer and director, Celine Song, explains, the inspiration for that scene comes from an experience she had a few years ago when she found herself sitting at a bar in the East Village, interpreting between her American husband and her childhood sweetheart visiting from South Korea.

CELINE SONG: Something extraordinary was happening in that bar that really stuck with me, and I think that that really was the start of why I wanted to make this movie.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Song says she felt something strange and magical seeing her past and present lives entwined together that night. And as she looked around the bar, she noticed other patrons glancing their direction.

SONG: Like, who the hell are these people to each other? It just made me feel like, you know, like, oh man, what if I could tell you?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Song's debut unfolds in three acts following a fictionalized version of herself named Nora Moon. Like Song, Nora emigrated from Korea to Canada at a young age. And like Song, she became a successful New York playwright in her 20s. The film's first act is set in Seoul, where Nora and her childhood crush Hae Sung part ways, the second 12 years later, when they reconnect over the internet, and finally, 12 years after that, when Hae Sung visits New York, where Nora now lives with her husband. And while that might sound like the setup for a classically chaotic romcom, Song says that she wanted her characters to show what love can look like when all parties put each other's feelings ahead of their own.

SONG: I love romcoms, and I love romantic dramas. I love it all. But I think often romantic drama is driven by grown-ups behaving like little children with each other.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Greta Lee, the Korean American actress who plays Nora, says she was entranced with the script for "Past Lives" from the moment she first saw it.

GRETA LEE: I opened up the PDF and read it in one sitting and just sobbed. I'm not sure if you've ever had the experience of trying to read while crying. It's kind of difficult.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Lee, known largely for her comedic supporting roles in shows like "Girls" and "Russian Doll," says she'd been longing to play such an emotionally complex character as Nora for years.

LEE: And to do that with Celine Song - I think I'm still wrapping my mind around how transformed I feel by the experience.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Kim Yutani, director of programming at the Sundance Film Festival, where "Past Lives" premiered, says the film was met with glowing reviews and a standing ovation.

KIM YUTANI: Celine's background as a playwright, I think, really shines through.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Not only in the poetic precision of her language, Yutani says, but also...

YUTANI: Her ability to work with actors and to get these profound performances. I was just astonished by that.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Be honest - did you cry a little bit when you first watched it?

YUTANI: I think everybody I know pretty much cried when they saw this film.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And if this reporter's being totally honest, he found out how hard it is to read while crying firsthand, right around when the credits started to roll. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi is a host and reporter for Planet Money, telling stories that creatively explore and explain the workings of the global economy. He's a sucker for a good supply chain mystery — from toilet paper to foster puppies to specialty pastas. He's drawn to tales of unintended consequences, like the time a well-intentioned chemistry professor unwittingly helped unleash a global market for synthetic drugs, or what happened when the U.S. Patent Office started granting patents on human genes. And he's always on the lookout for economic principles at work in unexpected places, like the tactics comedians use to protect their intellectual property (a.k.a. jokes).