What if There Was No Patriarchy? The Strange World of a Female Filmmaker

This week’s review will be a a little different in a couple of ways: it won’t take an hour to read, it focuses on one film exclusively, and was viewed and reviewed through a series of coincidences. The film is called Past Lives, a new release from A24 in theatres now.

Though it’s classified on IMDb as a drama/comedy, I think it could more accurately described as fantasy or alternate-universe science fiction. Why? Not because anyone who lives in NYC would never go to the Statue of Liberty except by force, or could afford a an apartment in the Lower East Side on a writer’s wages, or because it’s hard to imagine a guy with a childhood crush traveling to see his long lost sweetheart one more time. No, I found myself in an alien world once the two main guys in this film – the lead character’s husband and her Korean friend from the past- started behaving reasonably. Here’s a classic love triangle set-up and the story creates a new path instead of regurgitating those hoary story beats? Is that even legal in Florida?

There were a few things that I thought were predictable in a film by someone who lives in NYC but these are minor complaints. Mostly the film is a success: well-paced, engaging, with some solid and workmanlike camerawork fueled by a certain visual flair. There was much skill on display and more promised, enough to where I would automatically include Ms. Song’s next effort on my viewing list.

The film is in rarer company with a number of dialogue heavy scenes where the men are understanding, accomodating, vulnerable, and well-spoken, instead of the being the expected pouty and angry jerks that they would be in real life. In Ms. Song’s world, people speak to each other with consideration and intelligence with none of the limitations that come from a patriarchial mindset. It really threw me at first and then I realized she was creating a world where men weren’t assholes. I’ll admit that by the end of the film I had discovered that that world has a certain appeal to it.

I could waffle on about what a friend described as “another film by a writer writing about writers, right?” but that would just be more of my words. One of the things that inspired me to leave my cave to see this film when it was suggested by a friend was that I had recently saved an email from the A24 list by Celia Song about Past Lives. I thought that email was entertaining enough to where her film was also probably equally worthy of my time. Here it is:


Hi you,

I’m writing to you from my apartment in New York City, the city I live in, to wherever you are, the city you live in or happen to be in right now, to ask you to go see my movie Past Lives in theaters. That’s the headline. That’s the point of this whole thing: go to a physical movie theater — a theater near you! — and see my movie.

This is the first movie I’ve ever made, and I love it very much. I love it for everything it is, flaws and rookie mistakes and limitations and all — I love it for the talented, kind, beautiful people I got to make it with — but I love and appreciate and am grateful for this movie most profoundly because it has taken me to so many different cities, so many different theaters near you. It’s a movie that’s inspired by my own life, and it’s about many things — first love, lives not lived, growing up, letting go of (and making space for) all the many versions of a self, past and present, that exist inside every one of us — but it’s also fundamentally a movie about cities: how unique they all are, how much they have in common, and how very, very far they are from one another.

Much of my movie happens in New York City, this place I’ve called home since 2011 when I moved here to become a playwright. As is true for many, many others, New York is one of the great loves of my life. A lot of the movie happens in Seoul too, this place I once called home, a place that had faded almost completely in my memory since I left in 2000 until I went back in the fall of 2021 to make this movie. There are moments in the film in Toronto as well, a place I’ve spent much of my childhood, teen-hood, and young adulthood. There’s even a sequence in Montauk, a place that changed my life in ways I couldn’t possibly have predicted and won’t detail here at the risk of dropping a spoiler before you’ve seen the film.

As much as this movie is a map of a certain corner of my emotional life, it’s also a quite literal map of the places I’ve been, the path I’ve charted through space and time, and so it feels fitting that the process of releasing the movie has been its own sort of journey around the world, a diplomatic world tour. I’ve felt like a foreign dignitary showing up in strange new places with this movie — this little document about the cities I contain within myself — requesting an exchange with the locals. Come, gather round, let me tell you about where I come from and where I’ve been.

But, of course, I hope, at the end of the day, that the experience of watching this movie is not primarily an experience of me. My wish for you if you go and see this movie is that it takes you on a journey within yourself: to all the places you might have gone, or the places you’ve been without even realizing it, or the places you feel maybe, perhaps, inexplicably, you’ve been in another life. My hope is that you go see this movie in your city — wherever you happen to be right now — and that it makes you alive to the fact that you are so very big and so very small: you contain multitudes and yet you are rooted so cruelly and beautifully to one particular spot in space and time.

I realize that it’s not always so easy getting to a theater near you. Sometimes, it’s not even very near. You have to get in the car or get on the train or hire a babysitter or carve out the time — you’ve got to plan the trip, because you’re going somewhere.

In my case, a theater near you is comically literal. My apartment in New York is directly above a movie theater that is currently playing my movie, and so every time I leave my apartment to do anything, I walk by the movie theater and I see people coming out or heading in, and I play a little game with myself: which of these people are going to see Past Lives and which of them are going to see, I don’t know… Transformers? Which of these people are my neighbors? Which of them live in my building? How many times have I unwittingly shared an elevator in the past few weeks with someone who has just seen my movie? Every person I see in my building and on my street has been suddenly full of possibility and intrigue — I feel an odd intimacy with them, because I know that it’s possible that sometime recently or sometime soon, they might go downstairs to our movie theater — the theater near us — and visit some of the places I’ve been. They might know me for an hour or so, and, through a kind of osmosis, I might know them. The thought that there are people all around the globe — or at least in many parts of it — who are having a similar experience is almost too much for me to take. It’s surreal and mortifying and enlivening.

Wherever you are, whatever city you happen to be in, if you take the trip to see Past Lives, please know that I am forever grateful, and I am so excited to get to know each other and travel together, however briefly, in the dark. It is my honor and my deep privilege to be in a theater near you.

See you there.

Celine Song

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