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Celine Song talks ‘Past Lives’ and the quandary of choosing love or self

by Erin Chew, AsAmNews Contributor

Over the past few weeks, many Asian Americans have left the theaters weeping after watching the latest A24 film Past Lives. The film had a limited release at the beginning of June and will soon be screened in all the major theaters in the United States.

Past Lives is Celine Song’s debut film about a pair of reconnecting childhood sweethearts. It is a poignant, complex and layered film confronting notions of destiny, love and life. It tells the story of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two deeply connected childhood friends who reunite after two decades apart for a fateful week in New York.

Nora has a choice to make – will she choose to relive her past with Hae Sung? Will she choose the status quo and live her current life with her partner Arthur (John Magaro) – or will she make the ultimate choice and choose to lead her own independent life? These questions are the primary focus of the film and Song has cleverly intertwined them in this romantic drama.

Inspired by Song’s personal life experiences, Past Lives is one of those films where the “East meets the West.” Part of it is centered on Nora’s and Hae Sung’s childhood growing up and developing puppy love feelings for each other, and the other part is Nora’s young adult life, being married and balancing her personal and professional life.

Song, who is Korean Canadian, tells AsAmNews that this “East meets West” narrative comes from her own life – growing up partly in South Korea and her formative years till the present in Canada.

Past Lives revolves around my own experiences as I consider myself a mixture. I grew up a bit in South Korea, but most of my education years and my life now is in Canada – the West. Being a mixture, I have a close relationship with my family and Eastern philosophy, so in life I believe in both types of philosophies. With that, the film reflected this mixture and I intentionally made Korean language and culture of the characters connected to the storytelling, and I think that is what makes this romantic drama quite unique,” Song said.

As the title of this piece suggests, the film is a quandary of choosing love from the past, living with the present or choosing something totally different leaning towards self-love. Nora faces these quandaries and with a lot of reflection and consideration chooses to make a choice which was for herself, rather than for the two men in her love triangle.

Song discusses this premise of a romantic quandary and added that in her opinion, it is not the love and men which is the central narrative of the film, but it is the quandary of a choice Nora has to make as a complex, strong and independent Asian woman living in New York City.

“I actually see the focal point of Past Lives differently, as to me it is more of a movie about the quandary of choice rather than her romantic options. The person Nora chooses to be with at the end is a choice which allows her to choose to be what she wants in her own life,” Song said.

“So it is less about the guys but more about her choosing to live her own life in New York City. The only problem is, she must reconcile parts of her life that seem to be contradictory to her – and that is her romantic quandaries.”

Today, Hollywood does provide examples of strong-willed, independent Asian women in film and television. But in the past, Asian women were often depicted as weak, meek and obedient, objectified by the sexual gaze of white/Western men. This negative stereotype has permeated itself into reality with Asian women in America and in other parts of the world being seen as easy sexual conquests and targets for racial and gender discrimination.

Song spoke about the topic of stereotypes Asian women are forced to confront and said she hopes the depiction of Nora being the total opposite of the negative trope will change the perception and allow Asian women everywhere to feel connected and resonate with Nora’s character.

“Being a young child in South Korea I didn’t really notice these stereotypes, but when we immigrated to Canada and I started to grow up more, I noticed that we as Asian women are seen in a negative light. Now as a filmmaker, I had the opportunity to do this, so I could only do so speaking from my own experience of being an Asian woman who grew up in Canada and America. My hope is that Asian women watching this film can resonate with Nora’s character and see part of themselves in her, particularly when she is making life changing choices,” Song said.

Past Lives had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2023. Since then, it has done the film festival rounds and will have its US theatric release date of June 23, 2023.

Happy Lunar New Year! Time is running out to support our Lunar New Year Fundraising Drive through this link. The campaign ends Sunday. AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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