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Nora, as played by Greta Lee, leaning out of a car window and smiling as wind blows through her hair. She is bathed in a golden glow of light. Image: Twenty Years Rights/A24

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The director of Past Lives needed star Greta Lee to be a little bad at speaking Korean

Celine Song talks about the languages in her debut film

Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

Past Lives takes place across time and countries — and languages. Nora, the character at the center of A24’s acclaimed new drama, switches between her native Korean and the English she’s spoken since she was 12 years old. It is firmly a bilingual film.

Crafting a bilingual movie means accepting that the nuances of its language will probably be lost on most of the audience, writer-director Celine Song tells Polygon. Nevertheless, she took great care in guiding her actors to find the right way to speak in both of the languages, to make sure that the way they pronounced words made sense for their characters.

The movie follows two childhood sweethearts, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee), over the course of their lives, revisiting them in 12-year increments. The two part ways in their youth, when Nora’s family immigrates to Canada; reconnect in their young adulthood, only to part ways again due to the strain of a long-distance connection; and in the present day, Hae Sung visits a married Nora for a couple of days in New York City.

Nora and Hae Sung sit on a ferry, going to the Statue of Liberty. Photo: Jon Pack

In one of the film’s most memorable scenes — the scene that picks up what the enigmatic introduction teases — Nora sits at a bar with Hae Sung and Arthur, and translates for them. Arthur is learning a little bit of Korean and Hae Sung is passable with his English, so they do manage to have one conversation together when Nora is in the bathroom. But otherwise, each of the men waits as Nora talks to the other, unable to understand.

In real life, Yoo speaks English, and the actors were told what the dialogue was. So, figuring out just how Hae Sung and Arthur speak in their non-native tongues, and how they react to what’s being spoken around them, added a new layer to the acting and directing choices.

“Teo Yoo, because he speaks English, he tried to emulate the way that non English speakers, especially Korean ones, speak English,” Song says. “I thought it turned out so beautifully.”

On the flip side, Arthur has a few scenes where he clumsily tries to speak in Korean, and it’s implied that he’s been slowly learning the language. Magoro initially wanted to practice a little more and get better at Korean, but Song had other ideas.

Arthur and Nora going through United States customs at the airport Photo: John Pack/Twenty Years Rights/A24

“I was like, No, it should be kind of bad, because that’s the character. The character is trying to learn Korean,” she says. “It’s not really a matter of, like, Does he speak Korean? It’s more [that] he’s trying, and I think that effort felt really meaningful.”

But the most interesting case of language is Nora herself. She’s fluent in both Korean and English, switching between the two depending on the context. However, there’s a difference in the way she speaks in Korean and the way she speaks in English. For non-Korean speakers, this is subtle, a small vocal shift that might not seem significant, but Song tells us that it was deliberate.

“Greta’s level of Korean, I feel like, was perfect for the movie,” explains Song. “Because she sounds like a kid when she speaks Korean — because she emigrated when she was a kid, and she only really speaks to her parents in Korean. So it kind of made sense that she spoke Korean in a childlike way.”

Two children walking home from school. The girl waits on the staircase, watching the boy walk away. Photo: Jin Young Kim/Twenty Years Right

Like Magoro, Lee wanted to get better at Korean for the movie. But it wasn’t the right choice for a character who left the country and the language in her childhood. Song says that she told Lee not to improve her Korean.

“It should feel a little bit like [she is] trying to keep up with the language.”

In Past Lives, language ties everything in the movie together, linking Nora’s childhood — the version of herself left behind in Korea — to her present-day mostly-English-speaking self. But even though Nora’s Korean may not be so polished, it’s still the language she subconsciously reaches for. In one particular evocative scene, Nora and Arthur lie in bed talking, and Arthur mentions that whenever she sleep talks, it’s always in Korean. It’s a part of her and forever will be.

Past Lives is in theaters now.

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