Greta Lee doesn’t shy away from playing games with her co-stars.
The actor was having an interview with John Magaro and Teo Yoo about their film “Past Lives,” a romantic drama about the experiences of a Korean immigrant in the United States. It seemed timely to ask about the recent flurry of stories about Asian Americans in the news.
Lee deadpanned, “John, you should take this one.” Magaro did, to his credit, for about a minute of earnest, meandering conversation before Lee, laughing, offered her own response.
She stated to CNN, “The idea of what makes an American movie in and of itself is changing.” A lot of people, including myself, have felt so strongly about questioning who gets to be the storyteller and who gets to hold the storytelling stick for quite some time.
Their movie shows what happens when the right people hold that stick. Past Lives, a film by Celine Song, a Korean-Canadian writer and director, is largely autobiographical. It recounts the tale of Nora, a person who moves from Korea to Canada as a youngster, and later makes a daily existence in the US. She is in her 30s and lives in New York City with her writer husband Arthur when she gets a visit from Hae Sung, her childhood sweetheart. This makes her wonder what kind of life she might have had if she hadn’t left.
Song’s own life, in which she, like Nora, has built a career as a playwright in New York, serves as the inspiration for the movie’s grand arc. Song was the author of the stage play “Endlings,” which debuted in 2019 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, the Covid-19 pandemic cut short the play’s subsequent run in New York. She has also contributed to the fantasy series “The Wheel of Time” on Amazon.
She wrote her first screenplay, “Past Lives.” Despite Song’s lack of prior experience in a similar capacity, production company A24 suggested that she direct the movie because the script was so strong and inextricably linked to her own life.
Song added that she wrote “Past Lives” with a single audience in mind, describing the screenwriting process as one of “turning the subjective into objective.” she herself. That is forever been valid,” she said. ” Because I am aware of my own nonsense, I will be harsher critics than I believe the majority of audience members to be.”
We first meet 12-year-old Nora in Korea, just as she is about to leave, in three acts that span 24 years. After that, we go back to when she was a college student in New York and reconnect with Hae Sung online. We catch glimpses of Hae Sung, who appears to be stagnant in her absence, performing his compulsory military service, and residing in Seoul, a city that only appears to isolate. At the same time that we see the city, with its opportunities for careers and relationships, cultivating Nora’s talents, we also see Hae Sung. We finally see them again, reunited but carrying the weight of adulthood with them; its stability, but it also has big and small disappointments.
The script for Song is sparse but sharp. We don’t need to see the vast stretches of life that are lived in between, but we can feel them.
Song stated, “The mystery of time and space, as well as the way a person lives through it, is so messy.” The objective of this film has been to help me clarify it or gain a better understanding of certain aspects of what it’s like to be human.
Without the right Nora, Song’s clarity would not translate. The director recalled that the character required “a burning passion, a bit of ambition, and a lot of internal strength.” I discovered all of those things in Greta. She can experience feelings of both full-grown woman and young girl at the same time. I was looking for that charming contradiction in an actor.
Lee had never directed a film before, despite having prominent supporting roles in Netflix’s “Russian Doll” and Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show.” She stated, “from the beginning, we were talking about accessing just the experience of being bicultural and bilingual, which is something that is something that is very personal to me.” She was born in Los Angeles to Korean immigrants.
Lee continued, stating that the standard romantic drama trope of a woman “still grasping for her identity or her life wants” was inappropriate. We discussed how to tell a story from a different perspective: from a woman who is very steady, has a lot of ambition, and knows exactly what she wants.
The film is undeniably romantic, but it is also a self-reflective, subversive response to the romantic drama. The author allows her literary-minded characters to feel aware of the expectations of the genre and how they don’t match reality. In one scene, Arthur muses, “What a good story this is… I just can’t compete.” He is talking about Nora’s reunion. She responds, “Shut up.”
Convention dictates that the reappearance of Hae Sung in Nora’s life should lead to a heartbreaking decision for the audience: Is she bending or sticking? The genre and this question are at odds with Nora’s certainty. In point of fact, matters of the heart serve as a kind of entry point for the movie to consider a deeper investigation of selfhood. Although Nora’s life in South Korea is depicted by Hae Sung, the question of what she might have experienced had she and her family remained is one that transcends either of them or him.
The laundrette owner Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) wonders what might have been if she hadn’t left China for the United States in the Oscar-winning film “Everything Everywhere All At Once” last year. Through the multiverse, the movie shows those possibilities. Past Lives” uses Hae Sung and Arthur as its romantic totems rather than such visual literalism. Nora finds herself straddling the Korean and North American aspects of her identity in their presence. That may be upsetting. Arthur poignantly adds that Nora is shocked by how American she feels about Hae Sung and that she only ever talks to her in Korean while she is sleeping.
It can be cruel as well. Which Nora is she? Hae Sung states, “You are a person who leaves.”
Song stated, “This story is about a very extreme kind of leaving,” but added, “there is a part of the story that I think we can all connect to as we grow older… This movie, I think at the end of the day, is about the ways that we change as people.” Song continued, “This story is about a very extreme kind of leaving.”
Lee argued that “it’s really about three adults doing their best to behave as adults.” Song achieves no less profound results by omitting the need for a villain, as Arthur Magaro wryly observes that, in most versions of this love story, the villain would be “the evil White American husband standing in the way of destiny.”
Magaro stated, “You don’t need a super villain who’s about to destroy the world to feel a stake of life or death.” Because our personal relationships, marriages, and families—our need for love—are life and death for us—that, I believe, is why a lot of people can relate to this movie.
The narrative of “Past Lives” is heavily influenced by the concept of “inyeon.” The meaning of the Korean word, “ties between two people over the course of a lifetime,” is difficult to translate into English. It fills a void for Nora and Hae Sung in terms of describing who they are to one another: not quite lovers, friends, or ex-boyfriends. They are inyeon, and both what it actually means and what it doesn’t mean give that name strength and comfort.
Since its premieres at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals earlier this year, the film’s empathy and ideas have received an overwhelming positive reception. Prior to its June 23 nationwide release, the limited release in the United States has generated strong box office receipts.
“What people want has never changed: for them to feel a connection to both art and each other,” Song stated.
How did it feel to learn that other people have connected with her story?
Song stated, “I think it makes me feel less alone.” In a profound way, it makes me feel like I’m not the only one. I think I feel more connected to the world with each person in the audience who watches the movie.
Although it may not be inyeon, that feeling is not far off. Additionally, that offers consolation.
Beginning on Friday, “Past Lives” will be shown in all US movie theaters.