The Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Past Lives” was approaching, and star Greta Lee had just one question for director Celine Song: Would it be OK if we just didn’t show the movie? Ten months later, Lee thought back to that moment and laughed. “Yes, I admit that I did make that ridiculous and absurd request,” she said. “I was very gently reminded that actually showing it was pretty much integral to the process of filmmaking.”
Fortunately, Sundance did screen “Past Lives,” a lovely and understated film in which Lee plays a playwright who left Korea at age 12 and now lives with her husband in New York City, where she receives a visit from the childhood boyfriend she hasn’t seen in decades. An intimate gem that makes deft use of silences and glances, it’s a film about feeling disconnected and a story in which good people try to do the right thing.
It’s also delicate, which Lee said was one reason why she was so nervous about that first screening.
“I’m trying to accurately articulate what I was feeling,” she said. “From my initial encounter with the script, this was something that felt sacred. It felt new, it felt challenging, yet full of dignity and grace.
“We felt like we were on a mission to do it in a way that felt true, and it was totally thrilling, but also terrifying once it was complete. You can never guarantee what kind of connection a movie might have with an audience. And I felt like it was ours to mess up.”
It’s safe to say they didn’t mess it up, with “Past Lives” getting a release from A24 and winning near-unanimous raves. The three actors at its center — Lee as Nora, Teo Yoo as childhood boyfriend Hae Sung and John Magaro as Nora’s American husband Arthur — are all impeccable, with particular attention going to Lee and Yoo because they’re the couple whose relationship is at the center of the film (though Magaro deserves credit for being so decent and understanding that we don’t root for Nora to leave him).
Like Song herself, who based the film on her own experience leaving Korea as a child, Lee and Yoo are products of multicultural upbringings. Lee grew up in Southern California to Korean parents, speaking Korean at home and English outside the house; Yoo was born in Germany to Korean parents with Korean being the third language he learned after German and English.
“I had a good cry after my first reading of the script,” Yoo said. “It really touched me, because I was born and raised in Germany, and then later I studied in New York and London, and then I moved to Korea. And in each environment I felt like an outsider. That brought a certain melancholy to my life that I could utilize in my work. So I was always looking for a script that could allow me to express that.”
But the most challenging part of playing Hae Sung, he said, was not expressing melancholy but capturing masculinity. “Asian men, at least in the history of cinema in the West, were, in my opinion, dehumanized and desexualized,” he said. “Asian characters had to lean into tropes like martial arts or comedy or the nerd. So how do I show a character who’s acceptable as a romantic leading man in the West as well as the East?”
For Lee, it was tricky to make a film in which she often speaks Korean, a language in which she’d never acted. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to do it,” she said. “Acting is hard enough in English.”
She turned down the offer of using a traditional dialect coach and instead persuaded the producers to hire Sharon Choi, best known as the translator for Bong Joon Ho during his run to the Oscars with “Parasite.” “I wouldn’t call Sharon a dialect coach,” she said. “It was more like a linguistic and cultural exchange, and that was what was required for this movie. There were nuances that went way beyond, ‘You’re South Korean, you need to sound like this.’”
And now that she made it through that first “Past Lives” screening at Sundance, Lee is looking at a career that suddenly feels different to her. “You have certain hopes when you’re first starting out,” she said. “And over the years, I think that I had a level of acceptance that maybe this kind of role wouldn’t be available to someone like me. I was trying to make peace with that and having this come my way has meant everything to me.
“In the past few years, I was starting to wonder if maybe the kind of movie that I had been longing for for so long was dying out. And now, making this movie and finding an audience for a movie like this has reinvigorated this burning desire to not just make movies like this but to actively fight for making sure we continue to have movies like this.”
This story first appeared in the SAG Preview/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from the issue here.