From across a New York restaurant, unseen friends ponder a curious threesome seated together at the bar: a woman and two men. “Who are they to each other,” they wonder aloud, watching as the woman, seated closely between the two men, listens, rapt, to the one she’s facing, while, over her shoulder, the other sits silently. Is she in a couple with one? But which one?
The opening scene of Celia Song’s romantic drama Past Lives echoes a scene from the director’s life, in which she was the woman in the middle, seated between her husband with whom she shares a life in New York, and a friend from her childhood in South Korea, before her family immigrated to Canada.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made anything that’s not personal in some way,” Song said to the Washington City Paper‘s Chris Klimek, during a Q&A before an advance, packed screening of Past Lives, co-hosted by the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies.
“In this case, it was really this one night, kind of late night in the East Village in New York City,” Song recalled. “I found myself sitting there with my child sweetheart who had flown 14 hours to come visit. And then also, on the other hand, my White American husband, who only speaks English.
“And I was sitting there translating between these two guys, these two people who feel connected to me, and both of whose language that I speak. I think I felt like I was becoming a bit of a portal or a bridge, or something special was happening between the three of us. And I think that that really was the initial feeling that got me into maybe thinking that this is the movie I wanted to make.”
Starring Greta Lee (Russian Doll) as Nora, John Magaro (First Cow) as her husband, Arthur, and German-Korean heartthrob Teo Yoo as long-lost sweetheart, Hae Sung, the film embellishes Song’s real-life scenario into a dramatic love triangle that unfolds over years, but might be decided in one pivotal moment.
Perhaps the most romantic romance to grace the screen in a while, Past Lives comes alive in the trio of lead performances, particularly by Yoo, incandescent as the lover aching to rekindle a light that suddenly abandoned him as a child.
As Song pointed out, the film’s casting started with Nora, but she needed all three actors to connect.
“I think that every combination of the three people have to be in some way romantic,” she said. “Maybe we can talk about it as adversarial between the two guys. But honestly, they also have to form a romance as well.”
The intense onscreen rapport between all three actors adds pressure to Nora’s dilemma, and tension to the drama, much to Song’s satisfaction.
“The thing that I was looking for, first of all, is them being great actors,” said Song, “because, you know, the movie is about actors’ faces, and the performances. That’s really all we have. If you’re looking for an action sequence, I don’t got ’em, you guys.” Judging by the audience’s rapturous response to the film, no one seemed to mind.
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