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Celine Song discusses ‘Past Lives’ with screenwriter Chung Seo-kyung

Mar 25, 2024
  • Source by CINE21
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The ‘Dream Duo’ met up in Seoul, the home of Hae Sung



Celine Song, a Korean-American filmmaker highly praised for her first-time production Past Lives, was invited to a talk session with Chung Seo-kyung, a Korean screenwriter especially celebrated for her long collaboration with the acclaimed filmmaker Park Chan-wook: Thirst, Handmaiden, and Decision to Leave, to name a few. The event was organized by courtesy of CJ ENM, the Korean entertainment giant that co-produced Past Lives with A24. 


A novice moderator for a post-screening guest visit, Chung was natural in warming up the session with a kind welcome: “I would like to chat comfortably with Director Song today, just like we’re sitting in a regular soju place in Seoul around 4AM”. The director of the Oscars-nominated film humbled herself, replying “It’s an honor to be able to partially produce this film in Korea and present to an audience in Korea, where I had lived for twelve years.”


The discussion started with examining the earlier sequences of the film illustrating the childhood of Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung(Teo Yoo), which Chung described as “impactful in their brevity”. “12-year-old Na Young is a crybaby susceptible even to a minor mistake, but she firmly stands without a single trace of fear or weakness on the school pitch soon after emigrating to Canada. It seemed to me that she instinctively understood a grave challenge that she was confronting. Suddenly, twelve years pass by, and we see Hae Sung marching as part of the army.”


“I tried to portray the sense of time similar to what we subjectively sense in our lives,” Song explained. “Some twelve-year-blocks of time can fly by at the speed of light, while a single moment can feel like an eternity. The moments where Na Young becomes Nora, and where Hae Sung becomes a man after conscription, are what I suspect to be fast-forwarded for them.”


Being a film of the auteur’s self-reflection led to Song’s fluency in explaining Nora’s complex emotions. While Chung wanted to “support Nora’s mature decision to dedicate herself to her career” when she halted Skype connections with Hae Sung, the filmmaker presented an alternative view of “Nora not being attentive enough to the relationship between the two”.



 Past Lives


Chung’s technical analysis of the character Hae Sung was also something only an accomplished screenwriter like her could provide. “When a character like Hae Sung suddenly intrudes on Nora’s established lifestyle, it acts as an inflection point that questions the meaning of life to her. Hae Sung is allowing Nora to navigate all the possible trajectories of her life if she were still in Korea.”


The BAFTA-nominated lead actor Teo Yoo has also worked with screenwriter Chung in the 2022 film Decision to Leave. “Teo really has a sense of boyhood in him. I especially enjoyed his delicate expressions of Hae Sung awkwardly reacting to Nora,” Chung praised. Song connected the actor with the “Times Square billboard”: “Even the tiniest emotion really gets broadcasted in his facial expression,” she explained. “I discussed with the costume designer to dress Hae Sung up in a bulky shirt and tight trousers when he meets Nora again. He surely would have wanted to look mature after all those 24 years; in reality, his silhouette is that of a child with unmatching clothes.”


The iconic long take tracking shot near the ending, which mesmerized the screenwriter to “absolutely fall in love with”, sprung from the director’s desire to “portray the ironical sentiment in which they wish just ten more seconds to be allowed while also finding the silence between them too long and burdensome”. Chung expressed such a take as “brave”, adding she “usually refrains from writing such a silent scene as nobody can be sure of what the audience would feel from it”.


The very coincidence that happened during the filming of the scene, or the “miracle of cinema” as Song coined it, was what upgraded the scene’s aesthetic perfection. “The direction to which Nora walks corresponds to a direction of the time axis. Now Nora walks from left to right, then suddenly a gust of wind blows towards her, flapping her skirt to the left side of the frame. Hence Nora is heading towards the future, overcoming the wind that drags her back to the past. Such a touching moment for all of our crew.”


The hour-long conversation concluded with a Q&A session with the audience. For a question about the reasons why films from or relating to Korean elements gaining prominence worldwide, Song mentioned the breakthrough of Parasite that paved the way for K-content into the world. “Before Parasite, when I said I was writing a script in half-Korean and half-English, the usual response would be of a worry. Now they say they’re enjoying movies with subtitles more than ever.”



Written by Sooyong Park

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