When it comes to emotional impact, few films have landed this year with as much power as Past Lives. Celine Song’s cinematic directorial debut is an astonishing work – its quiet atmosphere leading to an upheaval of raw and real feelings. There’s a reason why it landed where it did on our Best Films Of 2023 list. It tells the shifting story of Nora (Greta Lee), who, as an adult living in New York, is happily married to Arthur (John Magaro), before unexpectedly reconnecting with long-lost Korean childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) – and over its runtime it gradually unspools some of the most tangibly heartfelt moments to have hit the screen in recent memory.
In the new issue of Empire, we spoke to Song and her cast about Past Lives’ impact, as well as its creation. All these months after release, the wholehearted embrace of the film is still being strongly felt by the cast and crew. “I continue to be completely sucker-punched by the reaction,” says Greta Lee. “There have been so many filmmakers, like Guillermo del Toro — we were so lucky to have him host a screening. But even more, it’s the people I meet in the grocery stores, as I’m putting a box of cereal into my cart, spinning around and facing someone who bursts into tears at the sight of me in the flesh,” she laughs. “It’s this strange new power I have, to incite that kind of emotional reaction from someone at midday. It just makes me feel like my heart’s cracked wide open.”
The film provokes big feelings due to how delicately it portrays them on screen. Take, for instance, the scene where Nora and Hae Sung attempt a Skype call – where all the glitching connections were orchestrated by Song herself. “Celine made it a point early on that we would do it live on a soundstage, in separate rooms connected via a live feed — but with a buffer that she could play around with,” recalls Yoo. Adds Lee: “Celine was like a sadistic DJ, freezing the connection without us knowing.” For Song, it was all about making those emotions as real as possible. “I was making it frustrating for them. ‘Freeze it! Freeze it!’,” the filmmaker laughs. “It was a technically wild thing, but it helped the actors to act live. It had to be hard for these two people to talk to each other.”
Song was careful, too, in how and when she allowed the cast to interact, to ensure she captured the intensity of it all when shooting. “My first shot with Teo was when we first met. Like, literally, with the cameras rolling,” remembers Magaro. “That was a first for me. It’s really hard to facilitate that, by the way: there’s one hair and make-up trailer, and to get one guy in and one guy out and have us never cross paths, it’s not easy. But they did it.” The results are all there on-screen – when you watch Past Lives, you’ll likely feel like your heart’s been cracked open too.
Read Empire’s full interview with Celine Song, Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro about the making of Past Lives, and its continued impact, in the Kingdom Of The Planet Of The Apes issue – on sale Thursday 21 December. Order a copy online here. Past Lives is out now on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD and digital.