Home Entertainment Extravaganza Celine Song’s Past, Present, and Future – Monomaxos

Celine Song’s Past, Present, and Future – Monomaxos

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When writer-director Celine Song broke down in tears one day on the set of Past Lives, the crew assumed it was because the scene, eerily close to her own childhood experience, was overwhelming her. They were in South Korea, filming the flashback moment when the 12-year-old protagonist of Past Lives, Nora, says goodbye to her childhood best friend, Hae Sung, as she and her family prepare to emigrate to Canada.

In reality, it was the sun that got to Song. Unable to get the light she was hoping for, she was upset not about her past but about her present: the pressure she felt to get her very first movie right. “This film is unbelievably personal to me, of course, in the conception of it, but it is unbelievably personal to me because it is a discovery for me as an artist,” says Song. “This is what I’ve always been meant to do. I just feel at home here.”

It’s fitting that Song, who previously found success as a playwright in New York, uses the word home to describe her directorial debut. Past Lives is about what home is, in so many ways. Song’s script, inspired by her own life, follows Nora, a writer living in New York whose childhood sweetheart comes to visit her, opening her up to a tense exploration of her past, her identity as an adult, and the meaning of love.

Intimate yet sweeping, Past Lives was the breakout of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, drawing praise not just for Song’s distinctive storytelling and visuals, but for the performances from stars Greta Lee, John Magaro, and Teo Yoo. “The fact that all these audiences globally are responding to it, and it’s a personal conversation they’re having with the film, is really amazing,” says Song. “This makes me feel less lonely, and that’s what you dream of as an artist: that your work, when it’s in the hands of the world, makes yourself feel less lonely.”

John Magaro and Greta Lee in Past Lives.

John Magaro costars as Nora’s husband.Courtesy of A24.

Song talks about love a lot—and not just because Past Lives is a modern take on the classic love triangle. In our conversations she’s quick to use love as a metaphor for many things, including her romance of more than 10 years with the city of New York and her recent breakup with the theater world.

Song moved to New York from Ontario to attend Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in playwriting in 2014. The daughter of artists (her mother is an illustrator and graphic designer and her father a filmmaker), she says she always knew she wanted to be a writer and remembers writing a poem about a spider eating a butterfly while she was still living in Korea—“I think it was before I emigrated, so it was before I was 12,” she says. She considered being a copywriter or something else in journalism but zeroed in on dramatic writing while in New York.

The city plays a prevalent role in Past Lives, as Nora (Lee) takes Hae Sung (Yoo) around the city, from the Statue of Liberty to Jane’s Carousel to Madison Square Park. For Nora, Hae Sung represents a home left behind and a life (and love) that could have been, but it’s also clear that New York—and her husband (Magaro)—are now home. Song seems to feel the same about the city, despite its flaws. “There are rats in the streets and lantern flies are everywhere and it’s flooding, so it’s really hard to imagine that you can love New York that much,” she tells me, breaking into a smile. “But sometimes you just feel like New York loves you because it’s really just a feeling, just a certain sunlight going through the buildings. But you know that New York wouldn’t give a shit if you left. So it’s this amazing thing of being loved by somebody who doesn’t need you at all.”

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