Celine Song's film debut, Past Lives, centers on Nora, who immigrated from Korea to Canada at the age of 12, before moving to New York City in her 20s, where she works as a playwright and is happily married to another writer, Arthur. When her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung, shows up hoping to reconnect, Nora finds herself reckoning with the life she has and the life she could have had.
Song also emigrated from Korea at age 12, before relocating to Manhattan. As a playwright, her work includes Endlings, which had an Off-Broadway run in 2020, and a production of Chekhov's The Seagull that she directed using The Sims 4. She is married to writer Justin Kuritzkes, and a handful of years back, she found herself at a bar with her husband and a childhood crush, who was visiting from Seoul.
Still, Song says Past Lives is "autobiographically honest but ultimately fictional."
Either way, the wistful drama is being hailed by critics as one of the strongest debuts in years, and at the 96th Oscars, Song became a first-time Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay. (Past Lives, meanwhile, is nominated for Best Picture.)
"I am overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude. And for my first film... crazy," she says of the nomination. "Some of the experience working on a debut film is secretly questioning if you belong, if people will support your vision. It has been equal parts scary and rewarding to make this film and release it into the world. It is with immense gratitude to those who championed my vision that I now get to be among these giants of screenwriting."
As she looks to the future, the filmmaker says, "I can't really get excited about making the same thing twice, because it's years of my life that I am devoting so completely to a project. I always have to believe that every project is the very first time I'm making it. What is going to always hold true is the humanism. It is always going to be about what it's like to be a person."
The films that have inspired Song throughout her life are similarly diverse, yet impactful. Below, she shares with A.frame five films that are never far from her mind.
This article was originally published on June 22, 2023 and has been updated.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón | Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby
It's a great movie. What I really admire so much is that it is a movie with such a clear ideology, and an ideology that I understand. It's a political film, but in a way where it really does get under your skin. I was left thinking about that movie for so long, because beyond the incredible filmmaking, I was moved by the philosophy. That really did feel like it spoke to the world that we live in now. There's something really special about that movie that I think about all the time.
Written and Directed by: Charlie Kaufman
As a playwright, I know that the thing that I've fallen in love with in writing or in making dramatic work has always been the parts of it that are theatrical. Theatricality is really at the heart of my first love. And Synecdoche, New York is such a personal choice that really resonates with me. Beyond everything else, I think about that movie as the theatrical taken to its most extreme. It's so much about the writing and so much about the ineffable feeling. There's something about that movie that I'm always so happy that it exists, because it's so special and there's no other movie like it. The ending is so beautifully ambiguous, too. The whole movie is so mysterious, and I really love that.
Directed by: Yorgos Lanthimos | Written by: Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos
I love Dogtooth, and the reason is similar to Synecdoche, New York in some ways. There's a really amazing theatrical something to it, where the society feels broken down because of the breakdown of language. I've always been really curious about that — the way that the language can either make something more lucid or make something a little bit darker or a little bit oblique. I think Yorgos Lanthimos is, in general, just a master of fascism. He understands fascism, and I think that movie is about fascism. I love it when something is able to do something that is so clearly ideological or political, without talking about it so directly.
Written and Directed by: Andrew Bujalski
They shot it like it was a personal camcorder, it's black and white, and it is about a chess tournament — one of the first AI chess tournaments. And I'm really interested in the way that the storytelling made AI feel unbelievably dangerous, which it is. It was shot in such an intentionally lo-fi way with incredible real people [as] actors. It feels like there's nothing like it to really express both the terror and weird humble beginnings of AI. I love that movie so much. I think about that movie regularly.
Directed by: Doug Liman | Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth
I was like, 'Should I say Mad Max?' But I'm going to say Edge of Tomorrow. It's written by Jez Butterworth and Christopher McQuarrie, which I think is where the strength of that movie really is — as well as Tom Cruise's performance, which is really amazing, and Emily Blunt's performance. There are performances in it and storytelling in it that I was so surprised to see in a movie that is just meant to be an action blockbuster.
There is a really complicated narrative and emotional arc. It's about the many lives. I think that movie is so special because the form of it is, of course, this action movie with aliens in it. But there's really amazing character development that happens with Tom Cruise's character that I think about a lot. I love that movie. I could watch it right now.