Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Director Celine Song poses for a portrait to promote the film Past Lives during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22, 2023, in Park City, Utah.Taylor Jewell/The Canadian Press

The year’s most beautiful film is also just a little bit Canadian, if you pay close enough attention.

In Celine Song’s feature debut, Past Lives, which premiered to rave reviews at Sundance before going on to charm the Berlin Film Festival, the Korean-Canadian filmmaker loosely adapts her own life to tell the story of two childhood lovebirds separated by distance and decades.

In the beginning of the romantic drama, 12-year-old Nora develops a deep bond with fellow student Hae Sung as they grow up in South Korea. But then Nora’s family decides to emigrate. It is not until decades later, with Nora now a successful playwright in Manhattan and Hae Sung a working stiff in Seoul, that the two finally reunite in New York – albeit with Nora’s American husband tagging along.

Tender, confident, and frequently funny, Song’s film toggles between decades and continents, with just a quick CanCon moment that points to Song’s own “twice-immigrant” status, when Nora and her family go through Canadian customs during the film’s first third.

Ahead of Friday’s theatrical release of Past Lives, Song spoke with The Globe and Mail about the many places she calls home.

I wanted to ask about the “Canada” of it all when it comes to Past Lives – did the country play much a part in your development as an artist?

Very much, because Canada is the place that I still consider home. My parents are still there, in Markham, Ont., and I go back all the time. It is a fundamental part of my identity, in ways more than my connection to Korea. It’s part of my inner self-esteem – my confidence, or sense of self. It was actually helpful to have this chip on my shoulder of not being from a major American city while working as a playwright. Although I’m just guessing here – I’ve never thought about it, really.

Was there any temptation to put more of your Canadian life into the film itself?

The movie has to move through 24 years, so some of it had to be abbreviated. But what mattered to me is that Nora is twice an immigrant, not just once, so there’s Canada and then America. It was an important part that she is not just a Korean American, but a Korean-Canadian American.

How did your work as a playwright help prepare you for making a film? This is your directorial debut, without even a short film to your name.

In theatre, the core of what you do is story and character, blocking, working with actors – scene work, basically. That’s connected to what you have to exactly what you have to do with film directing. I didn’t know a lot of technical things, not even how to read a call sheet, but you ask your way toward understanding. A lot is about confidence. Hundreds of people are relying on you, so even though I was doing things that I wasn’t sure would work, you have to look the cast and crew in the face and say, “It’s going to work, it will work.”

You have a history in the theatre world of trying things that have never been done – I’m thinking about you staging Chekhov’s The Seagull on Sims 4 and streaming it live on Twitch. And here, well, there aren’t many major North American releases, even indies, where the script’s dialogue is split between English and Korean.

It’s that, yes, but it’s also a movie about three ordinary people going through events that are emotionally extraordinary. When you make a play or a movie, you’re giving it three years of your life, minimum. For me to care about something for three years, it has to be a project that has something to teach me. It has to be smarter than me. It has to be something that I haven’t done before. Not so much something that hasn’t been done by other people, but I have to feel like it’s going to feel like I’m doing it for the first time.

The film opens with a scene based on your own life. We’re in this East Village bar, Nora, her husband and Hae Sung. You show strangers wondering just what the relationship is between these three, observing them and speculating. Today, do you find yourself noticing other people more, wondering what their stories are? The film pivots on the act of being observed – do you find yourself a different kind of observer today?

I think that this movie itself is about accepting being observed. You let the audience observe the characters so deeply, over the course of 24 years. It’s about getting real about what you’re observing. When it comes to myself as an observer, though, it’s without question just a natural part of being an artist. At the end of the day, I am interested in people, showing people and telling stories about people. I’ve said “people” too many times now, but you get what I mean.

Do you see yourself focusing on film going forward, or going back to theatre?

Oh, I’m going to make more movies.

So there’s no tinge of sadness in leaving the theatre world behind?

No. But I’m in a bit of a honeymoon phase with filmmaking now.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles