Celine Song, director of the Oscar-nominated film “Past Lives.” (courtesy of CJ ENM)
“My father was so happy and proud after hearing we’d been nominated for an Academy Award.”
Celine Song said her father was the happiest of all after learning that her debut film “Past Lives” was among the nominees for best picture and best original screenplay at the 96th Academy Awards.
That father is Song Neung-han, himself a director whose debut “No. 3” (1997) became a cult classic but who immigrated to Canada after releasing his follow-up “Fin de Siecle” (1999). The Hankyoreh spoke to Celine Song via videoconference on Tuesday morning ahead of her film’s Korean debut on March 6 and the Oscars on March 10.
“In the year since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last February, the film has received a level of attention that’s surprising for a debut thanks to the recognition and support of a lot of people,” she said. “It really does feel like something out of a dream.”
Song based “Past Lives” on her own autobiographical experiences as an immigrant who left her home country at the age of 12. A central theme is “inyeon” — a word meaning something similar to “fate,” which appears in untranslated Korean in the film.
“Every Korean understands what ‘inyeon’ refers to, but it’s not a concept that exists overseas,” she explained. “But it was gratifying for me to see audiences sensing and accepting its meaning through the film.”
“Even people who haven’t immigrated have had the experience of leaving the place where they live. I think that when you leave someplace, the life you left behind turns into ‘inyeon’ over time, creating special moments within ordinary life,” the filmmaker said.
“That’s what I wanted to turn into a film,” she explained.
“Past Lives” begins with a scene of three people drinking together in a bar: Nora (Greta Lee), a woman who has moved to New York after immigrating from Korea; Hae-sung (Teo Yoo), a sort of first love from her elementary school days; and Nora’s husband, an American.
Speaking about this scene, Song said she incorporated elements of her own experience of drinking with her American husband at a bar in the East Village with her first love as a child when he visited New York.
“As I sat in the middle interpreting for these two people who didn’t speak the same language, I suddenly felt like I was interpreting my own history — like the past, present and future versions of me were all sitting together,” she recalled.
“I told my friends about these special emotions I experienced, and they said they’d all had similar experiences. So that scene was the first thing I wrote when I started on the script,” she explained.
Still from “Past Lives.” (courtesy of CJ ENM)
Song also shared about her telephone audition with actor Teo Yoo, whose performance in the film earned him a best actor nomination at the British Academy Film Awards, known as the BAFTAs.
“After seeing the audition tape he sent in, I called him up in Korea, and we spent three hours reading the script together,” she recalled.
“I saw him as an actor who could transform and take on different aspects. The next morning, I called him and said we should work together, and then he ended up winning a newcomer’s award at another award ceremony that evening, which I was delighted about,” she said.
Commenting on the Academy Award nominations for her debut feature, Song said she felt “tremendously honored to start out like this.” She also gave thanks to the film “Parasite.”
“I think ‘Parasite’ really paved the way for films with English subtitles,” she said.
“‘Past Lives’ is an American film, but it has a lot of dialogue in Korean, so there are a lot of English subtitles. I feel like people have been able to enjoy the film more comfortably because ‘Parasite’ and its subtitles did away with American audiences’ aversion to films with subtitles,” she explained.
Song is currently planning to visit Korea ahead of the film’s local debut next month.
“I’m really curious and excited to see the reaction from Korean audiences,” she said.
“Now I want to hurry up and visit Korea,” she added.
By Kim Eun-hyoung, senior staff writer
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