Oscar-nominated Korean diaspora film follows 'lives we leave behind'

By AFP   March 6, 2024 | 10:59 pm PT
Oscar-nominated Korean diaspora film follows 'lives we leave behind'
A still from "Past Lives", starring Greta Lee (L) and Teo Yoo. Photo courtesy of A24
A Korean-Canadian director's debut feature film -- a quiet romance exploring time, longing and lost chances -- has arrived in South Korea for theatre release after garnering two Oscar nominations.

Ever since South Korea's "Parasite" became the first non-English language film to win a Best Picture Oscar in 2020, works by Korean diaspora filmmakers have witnessed a significant surge of global interest.

Celine Song's "Past Lives" comes alongside the critical success of other works featuring the Korean overseas experience, such as "Minari", "Pachinko" and Netflix's "Beef".

The film follows a Korean-American woman in New York who is visited by her childhood crush from Seoul more than 20 years after she abruptly left South Korea for North America.

It was a favourite at last year's Sundance, won best picture at this year's Independent Spirit Awards and has received two nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards: best picture and best original screenplay.

The project was inspired by Song's own experience -- drinking with her husband who does not speak Korean and her childhood friend who was visiting from South Korea in New York -- where she had to act as an interpreter for the gathering.

"As I was doing the interpretation, I also realised that I was interpreting two parts of my own story, my personal history itself and my identity," Song said at a press conference in Seoul.

Her film skillfully explores what it means to live in the realm of "what ifs", and one's complex relationship with a younger self that exists solely in the past and in places they no longer inhabit.

"We are not fantasy characters nor do we traverse multiple universes or parallel dimensions," Song said in an interview with AFP and others, when asked about the film's title.

"But because we pass through so much time and space, and because we age and we relocate, I believe that there are always lives that we end up leaving behind."

Time and closure

"Past Lives" is South Korean entertainment giant CJ ENM's first joint project with Hollywood's indie film studio A24, which counts films such as the Oscar-winning Korean-American tale "Minari" and absurdist immigrant comedy-drama "Everything Everywhere All at Once" in its catalogue.

One-third of "Past Lives" was shot in South Korea, with the remaining portions filmed in the United States. Its distribution is being handled by A24 in North America and CJ in Asia.

CJ ENM -- which has backed film hits including "Parasite" and local blockbusters such as "Ode to My Father" -- said "Past Lives" is part of its strategy to diversify into the global market.

"It is difficult for us to compete in the United States with a movie that goes up against a Marvel series" with huge budgets, Jerry Kyoungboum Ko, CJ ENM's head of film business, said.

The company's strength lies in its focus on Asia, and CJ ENM aims to leverage that by collaborating with up-and-coming talents from both domestic and international backgrounds who have fresh and authentic stories linked to the region, he added.

While diasporic tales have recently garnered considerable attention in Hollywood, stories of loss and places are "no longer exclusive to immigrants themselves" in the modern world, director Song said.

"When we screened this movie in Ireland, there was an Irish person who was moved to tears because it reminded him of his girlfriend whom he had left behind in Dublin, while he's currently residing in Glasgow."

Song said her film also explores the concept of closure.

"In life, there are moments when we say goodbye to (things and people) in a proper manner. However, there are also instances where we neglect to do so because we just think it's insignificant," she said.

"We come to realise how fortunate it is to be able to say goodbyes properly, how much of a gift it is."

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