Toronto director Celine Song’s debut movie Past Lives garners Oscar buzz

Toronto’s Celine Song didn’t begin as a director. She didn’t begin in film at all — Song’s first love, so to speak, was theatre, where she received critical acclaim for her playwriting, including 2019 play Endlings. But in 2020, the constraints of live theatre during the pandemic and unfavourable changes within the industry prompted her to “break up,” as she refers to it in Vanity Fair, with the art form and discover a new one — screenwriting and, later, directing — thanks to her semi-autobiographical debut film, Past Lives.

Celine Song and I wrote for the same newspaper while we were students at Queen’s University. Though our time there didn’t overlap, I can’t help but feel as though our meeting carries some sort of cosmic weight to it. Maybe it is in fact fate, or in-yun, as the characters in her film, Past Lives, would call it.

In-yun is what brings people together over multiple lifetimes, as in the case of Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur. Nora Moon’s family emigrates from Seoul to Toronto when she is 12, leaving behind her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. By the time they meet again in person 24 years later, Nora’s a successful playwright living in New York City with her husband Arthur.

A quietly intense film brimming with longing and emotion, Past Lives asks what happens when the unlived versions of ourselves confront the reality we’re in. With a final act that left me clutching my chest, tears filling my eyes, it has been hailed as one of this year’s best films and has been generating Oscar buzz since its premiere at Sundance Festival.

Past Lives is Song’s first film, though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the strength of her direction or the power of her screenplay. Song herself was born in Seoul, moving to Markham at the same age as Nora, and attending Queen’s before moving to New York to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting at Columbia. In her filmmaking debut, Song discards tired tropes of romantic drama, presenting us with a love triangle brimming with understanding and empathy.

Song has shared that the opening scene of the film — a woman with a man sitting on either side of her at a bar in the East Village in New York — was inspired by her experiencing exactly that in her own life, sitting between her husband and her childhood sweetheart.

And I was sort of looking around the bar, and seeing how the people who work there and the other patrons of that bar looked at us and I just realized that they were all wondering who we were to each other,” Song said on the podcast Little Gold Men about the moment that prompted her directorial debut. 

“So much romantic drama happens when grownups behave like children,” she says. “Some of these people we meet as children in this movie, and I wanted for there to be drama, even though they’re doing their best to treat each other like adults and really care for each other.” 

There is not a single instance in the film where the characters raise their voice at one another; this is not a film of deceit and betrayal. And yet Song is able to conjure a dramatic story without the usual trappings that try to coerce an audience into caring about a story.

“I think the stakes can be so high, even with ordinary people who are going through something really ordinary. There’s something really special when someone’s able to connect with somebody who does not have extraordinary powers, except maybe one kind of power, which is to care for the person or love someone, or think of the person and think of what the person needs, and to prioritize that over what you need,” Song says. “That can be really extraordinary, and you can have really high stakes that way, even though maybe you’re not saving the world.”

Early during Hae Sung’s visit, he calls himself ordinary. It is a testament to both Greta Lee’s performance as Nora as well as Song’s direction that we know that this is not the case. Or maybe it is, in the grand scheme of things, but he is not ordinary to Nora. This distinction is what brings so much life to Past Lives. It elevates the ordinary, making our everyday lives seem extraordinary, though it does so in a way that feels gentle, empathetic, humane.

“In ordinary people, I see extraordinary ways that we care for each other in an everyday way, but they’re so rarely seen on screen when it comes to what we think drama is. Of course, some of that is gentle, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t devastate, does not mean that it is not wildly dramatic,” Song says. “I think the gentleness is at the heart of it, but even the gentleness is supposed to raise your heartbeat.”

Towards the beginning of our conversation, I ask Song about her transition from playwriting to filmmaking, what that experience was like for her.

“I was able to have complete authorial control and voice. I was just excited to be making this movie. The making of the movie itself was such a discovery for me, a real revelation to me.” Song says. “I really felt connected to the act of filmmaking. It’s the first time I’ve ever done it, but I really felt so at home in it and feel so connected to it.”

Oh Celine, we can tell.

Past Lives premieres in Toronto on June 9.

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