Thursday, July 18, 2024

Celine Song. (Photo: A.R.T.)

Director Celine Song’s debut film, “Past Lives” will devastate you. The tenderhearted, serpentining tales of love made and lost between two people over years and borders follows Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), childhood friends whose lives take them in different directions. After Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea, the two reconnect twice over the course of decades, leading to one fateful week in New York City, where Nora is married to Arthur (John Magaro).

The script to “Past Lives” is hers, inspired by Song’s own life – she lived the moment that would become the opening scene, sitting at a bar between her childhood sweetheart and her husband. Here she was, this portal between two men, and it made her feel powerful.

Yet Song said she wasn’t sure people would be interested. “For a little bit, I was just telling the story to some of my friends and they all had such deep responses to it, and they had their own stories to tell. They really let it get under their skin, which I thought was maybe a sign that this is a story worth telling,” she said in an interview with Cambridge Day.

There’s a throughline as well between Song, Lee and the character she plays, all of whom have dabbled in the theatrical world and work constantly to challenge themselves. The character was a collaboration with Lee. “What I really love about Greta as an actor is that she has this amazing, burning ambition and just a career-oriented heart. Her life isn’t just about being liked,” Song said. “The thing that I really wanted to make sure we do is to create this character that has so many facets.”

Nora wanting to live in New York is a crucial part of the story and character. “I don’t know many people in New York City who don’t have burning ambition,” Song said. “Hae Sung is from Seoul, and that matters. They kind of have to feel connected to the places they’re in. I wanted to be able to capture the differences and beauty of the cities.”

We watch Nora go against what audiences expect from a love triangle, in which one person feels threatened by the introduction of someone from the past. While there are yearning, melancholy films that are easy to compare it to, such as “Before Sunset,” (2004) “Asako I & II,” (2018) and “In the Mood for Love” (2000), “Past Lives” and Nora rebuke the idea of romance needing to be a factor.

“Part of what I really wanted to happen was to make sure that it wasn’t Nora choosing between the two guys. Nora is choosing herself and the conception of her life. At the heart of it is that she’s happy in New York, married to this guy and living her life, because she has her own dreams. This amazing connection comes to visit her, but that’s not going to change what she wants,” Song said.

Asked about an ending that offers closure to all three characters, Song homes in again on Nora’s growth: “Who she is grieving first and foremost is the little girl that she left behind. She’s walking home and crying because of this amazing gift that Hae Sung gave her by coming to visit her; she is able to acknowledge that the little girl deserved to be grieved. They get to say the goodbye that they were owed 24 years ago.”

For a story Song described as being about “ordinary people living such mundane parts of their lives,” the power it wields is immense. Its catharsis wounds. Certain sequences bruise, and in the next line, a character delivers one of the most romantic lines heard on film.

Song has heard from many watchers, noting differences in response from those in long-term relationships and those who are single. Is the film an unrequited story, or an uplifting one? She didn’t see an easy answer.

“It is both gutting and just beautiful and romantic. It’s both. You can have two completely opposing responses, depending on where you are in your life and love. I think it’s all really wonderful that you can have such a personal and unique response,” Song said.

As a playwright, Song has had productions such as “Endlings,” which played at the A.R.T.’s Loeb Drama Center in Harvard Square in February and March 2019, and experiments such as remaking Chekhov’s “The Seagull” within a Sims video game, and she’s worked on television projects such as Amazon’s “The Wheel of Time.”

“Past Lives” is Song’s first time directing – “I remember feeling like, oh, wow, I feel like this is really love, I feel so at home,” she said – but the film is a true masterpiece, and unlikely to be her last.

“I felt like this is my calling,” Song said.

  • “Past Lives” opens Friday at Landmark Kendall Square Cinema, 355 Binney St.

Allyson Johnson is editor-in-chief of the entertainment website InBetweenDrafts.