Celine Song wrote the screenplay for her A24 directorial debut drama Past Lives based on a real-life encounter she had sitting at a bar, sandwiched between her husband and her childhood sweetheart.
Past Lives stars Greta Lee as Nora, a Korean-American who immigrated from Seoul to Canada with her parents when she was 12, leaving behind her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung, played by Teo Yoo. Years later, after Nora has immigrated once again to New York, she reconnects with Hae Sung — but to his disappointment, she’s already married to an American man named Arthur, played by John Magaro. The three of them spend an awkward but healing weekend together in Nora’s chosen city.
Celine Song Tells the Real-Life Story That Inspired Past Lives
This reporter’s most pressing question for Song was this: Where does her real-life end and the movie begin?
For starters, Song told me, the true story was a lot less romantic than the movie. But the opening scene in the bar was pretty close to how it happened in real life.
Sitting between her husband and her childhood sweetheart, she could feel the stares of others.
“I also was looking around the bar, and I was seeing the way that people were trying to figure out who we were to each other,” Song says. “I was making eye contact with some people who were just, like, glancing at us to try to guess. And I felt like my first thought was, I mean, wouldn’t you like to know? You have no idea. You have no clue, right? And then secondly, I was like, well, but what if I actually did take the time to tell you about it, about who we are to each other? It’s really complicated.”
So she decided to do just that — but with quite a lot of romantic embellishments.
“It has to become something that walks on its own, you know? It’s not a docuseries. It’s not a reenactment,” she laughed. “The movie is significantly more romantic than what the encounter was, because this is a romantic film. But between me and my childhood sweetheart, it was not romantic. It was platonic. It was really platonic… because I wanted it to be a romantic film, there is a kind of romanticizing.”
But Song does have a lot in common with Nora. They both immigrated from Korea to Canada and then from Canada to New York. They’re both playwrights. They both married American artist husbands, and they both have childhood sweethearts from Korea.
“It’s important that Nora is not just a Korean American. She’s a Korean-Canadian-American, and I’m a Korean-Canadian-American. Because when she first immigrated from Korea, she was 12. So there is a kind of a lack of autonomy in her immigrating, so maybe it’s easy to say, well, she immigrated because her family immigrated, right?” Song says. “But for her to immigrate again, from Canada to the U.S. so she can pursue her dreams… actually, that is an important detail.”
But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Her real-life husband is very different from the character of Arthur, just like her real-life childhood sweetheart is really different from Hae Sung.
“Arthur changed to be unrecognizable from him, just like every other character, because it really is a movie and these ended up being, really, characters,” Song says.
“It was the approach when I was casting, it was the approach when I was directing, and honestly, it was an approach maybe when I was writing… we’re trying to discover these characters, and of course, their truth… it was very much deeply inspired by people in my life and story itself. But at the end of the day, it was so much about the discovery. So I think it did become unrecognizable.”
Past Lives is now playing in theaters.
Main Image: Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives. Photo Credit: A24