Ellie Park, Photography Editor

More than 300 students filled the auditorium at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall to hear from Korean Canadian director Celine Song on Tuesday. Song, the Academy Award-nominated director of “Past Lives,” was this year’s Pan Asian American Heritage Month, or PAAHM, keynote speaker.

The film, which is Song’s directorial film debut, follows two childhood friends, Nora and Hae-sung, as they reunite with each other and confront all that has changed — and remained the same — over the last 24 years. Song’s speech touched upon intentional creative decisions within the film, her experiences in the theater and film industry and her reflections on her bilingual, bicultural identity.

This year’s PAAHM celebrations centered on “Nostalgia and the Path Forward,” a theme that resonated with “Past Lives,” said Song.

“At the heart of the movie’s audience are immigrants,” she said. “And it can be in India, or it could be in France, or it could be in the United States. But wherever it is, the audience that this is for, at the heart of it, are people who have [had their] feet in two different spaces.”

Song’s address was preceded by a performance from “UNITY,” Yale’s traditional Korean drum and dance troupe — as well as introductions from Joliana Yee, director of the Asian American Cultural Center and an associate dean of Yale College, and Zahra Yarali ’24. Song’s speech was followed by a short Q&A session, moderated by Diza Hendrawan ’25 and Jenny Lee ’25.

According to Yee, the theme of “Nostalgia and the Path Forward” is an important reminder to carry lessons from the past with us as we are moving forward to the future.

“This year’s theme, ‘Nostalgia and the Path Forward,’ is a reminder in an ever-changing, fast-paced and oftentimes turbulent society, of the necessity to slow down, pause and remember our roots, where we come from,” Yee said. “I have personally found that whenever I feel fear and doubt about the future, drawing from the strengths of my ancestors and communities, who shaped me into being, [has] been my most powerful tool.”  

For fans of rom-com and film buffs alike, “Past Lives” has received critical acclaim for its modest, yet emotionally devastating, portrayal of romance. In some ways, the film’s honest and realistic nature is unsurprising, given that “Past Lives” is partially inspired by Song’s own experiences.

The idea for this movie first came to her as she was sitting at a bar, in between her white husband Arthur and a childhood friend from Korea, translating between two men who had loved her across time, space and languages.

This moment would later serve as the inspiration for the opening scene of the film, in which two strangers observe Nora, Hae-sung and Arthur sitting at the bar and speculate about their relationships. They ask themselves whether Nora and Hae-sung are siblings. Is Nora introducing Arthur, her friend, to Hae-sung, her boyfriend? Viewers are left wondering how these three characters’ relationships are intertwined.

As much as this opening scene serves to tease out curiosity and tension between the characters, for Song, this moment is an empowering one. Her bilingual tongue, an insecurity of hers, seemed to be a “superpower,” bringing together the worlds of two strangers.

“I remember also knowing that the only reason why these two people ended up in this bar on the same night and our ‘in-yeon’ is because of me,” Song said. “Because of their connection to me. And I think that being in that room, being bilingual felt like a superpower. It felt like I was now able to collapse time and space and become whole and become bigger than an ordinary person.”

Since its release, “Past Lives” has enjoyed considerable success and popularity. Most recently, the film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards and received five nominations at the 81st Golden Globe Awards. 

Not everyone was sold on this movie at first, according to Song. Particularly during the pre-production stages, it was difficult for people to understand the marketability and feasibility of a bilingual film. Song had written the script before the success of 2018 film “Parasite,” which spurred critical discourse on how foreign-language movies were treated in award circuits, said Song.

It seemed as if this was a story nobody wanted to hear. Even the script-writing programs seemed to reject bilingualism, Song said. 

“I opened ‘Final Draft,’ and I realized that they don’t support any other alphabet except for the English alphabet,” Song said. “It’s a way of implicitly telling you that Hollywood is not interested in a movie that is bilingual.”

While “Past Lives” was Song’s first script-writing venture in the film industry, Song has been a playwright for more than decade. If there’s anything that Song has learned from her experience in the theater industry, it’s rejection. As a playwright, she said, you realize that “no one wants to do your plays anyway.” Just as she had done with theater-writing, Song pushed on and continued to write.

Even as she met and spoke with audiences in various different countries, Song noted that this story is particularly relatable for viewers who are used to having their feet in two different worlds: “sometimes bilingual, sometimes bicultural and sometimes not even fully that.”

At the same time, however, there is a universality to the heartache and yearning of “Past Lives,” said Song. She recalled a conversation she had with an audience member in Galway, Ireland, who tearfully spoke to her about his childhood sweetheart, all the while pronouncing “in-yeon,” the Korean word for fate, in a heavy Irish accent.

“There’s a way that you can watch ‘Past Lives’ where it is quite a universal feeling,” Song said. “Just by having been 16 once and no longer 16 and feeling displaced from the person that you were when you were 16 and having become a different person, because now you’re a little bit older … I think that’s the reason why the audience existed in such a big way.”  

For Lee, one of the co-moderators for the Q&A portion of the talk, “Past Lives” is more than a story of romance. 

The film presents a chance for its characters, as well as viewers, to properly say goodbye.

“To me, it was a story about a childhood sweetheart and a now-lover but also about letting go of a life that could’ve been,” Lee said in an interview with the News. “It’s about visiting Korea and seeing high school-aged girls in uniforms and wondering what I could’ve looked like in a Korean high school uniform. It wasn’t just a film about letting go of an imagined romance with someone but also about mourning versions of a life forfeited to, as Celine Song shared in her keynote, the Pacific Ocean and time.” 

Song’s play “Endlings” premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 2019 and tells the tale of three older Korean haenyeos — female sea divers — and a Korean-Canadian writer residing in New York.