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‘Past Lives’ Star Greta Lee Explains How Language and Identity Are Intertwined: NPR

Greta Lee stars in the new movie Past lives. She talks with NPR’s Ailsa Chang about the film and how language and identity are intertwined.


Nora and Arthur from the new movie “Past Lives” have a loving marriage and a fulfilling creative partnership. She’s a playwright. He’s an author. But they are so different in so many other ways.


JOHN MAGARO: (as Arthur) Is that what you imagined when you left Seoul?

GRETA LEE: (As Nora) When I was 12?

MAGARO: (As Arthur) Yeah. Is this what you imagined – lying in bed in a small apartment in the East Village with a Jew who writes books?

CHANG: It’s Greta Lee as Nora, who left Korea as a child and left behind her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. Hae Sung finds her decades later in New York. Reconnecting with him raises all kinds of questions for Nora about the path she chose in life and how her decisions reshaped her identity.


LEE: (Like Nora) He still lives with his parents, who are really Korean. He has all these really Korean opinions on everything. And I feel so un-Korean when I’m with him but also, in a way, more Korean – so weird.

CHANG: It’s a feeling that’s so familiar to me as a Taiwanese American, this feeling of living in between – between West and East, between kinship and distance. Greta Lee and I talked about how her character, Nora, embodied that tension in this film.

LEE: In Nora’s case, she is Korean-Canadian. But if you look at, say, the linguistic aspect, it was so important to accurately convey the fluency of the language. And when you mention, like, OK, feeling more Asian around certain people or less, that kind of fluctuation is something so real and personal to me. And we wanted to bring that to the character in this story.

Chang: Yeah.

LEE: So in some ways it was so crucial to really focus and be really specific in some cases on, well, is she going to sound – how Asian is she? How Korean does it sound at the start of a scene as opposed to the end of the scene after, say, several hours of conversation with Hae Sung in Korean? And just being aware of all of that, I mean, was a reflection of this experience that we’re talking about – of living in-between, of experiencing this full spectrum of western and oriental and – you know?

CHANG: Oh, my God, like, especially that moment when Nora is lying in bed with her husband and he mentions that she’s talking Korean in her sleep. And…

LEE: Yeah.

CHANG: She didn’t even know that was what was happening.

LEE: Well, there’s something so telling about language, isn’t there? I mean, my language, my Koreanness (ph) is such a private thing. And actually, you know, I was, like, surprised and kind of tickled by the response from my friends and family initially when they heard I was taking this – that kind of reaction collectively, like, oh my God. But can you actually speak Korean? Can you speak Korean? How is your Korean? Oh no. And – but what I feel like what it was focusing on is that there’s so much about how we hold on – whether it’s our first language or our second language and what that relationship is like . So that scene – yeah, that scene when she talks to Arthur about it – it’s so personal that her husband can identify that it’s something that’s a place he can’t go.

CHANG: He can’t access.

LEE: He can’t, and he’s fully aware of that.

CHANG: Were you surprised that you could speak Korean so well in this movie? Were you somehow re-accessing that deep reservoir in your own brain? Like, oh, I know that. I can talk so much better than people think.

LEE: I didn’t expect to make a film in Korean with so much Korean – a film in another language…

CHANG: (Laughs).

LEE: …Other than my mother tongue, which is English. And being immersed and re-immersed in my Korean and my Koreanness – it unlocked a lot of different things. It opened up, for me, recognizing all the changes I had made in my life and my career, this trajectory of what it means to have this immigrant experience. Yes, we have academic ideas of what assimilation is, but it’s gotten really personal. And that was – I think, in a way, maybe that aligned with Nora’s experience of feeling the grief and loss of identity and letting go of her old self and just coming to terms with that, you know, the choices we make – where we live, who we’re surrounded by…

Chang: Yes.

LEE: They have incredible, massive impacts on the full trajectory of our lives.

Chang: Yes. Well, you followed up beautifully with my next question. A Korean concept known as inyeon appears in this story. Explain what it really is briefly to people who have no idea what this term means.

LEE: Inyeon, for me as I know him, it’s just about human connection. It’s rooted in ideas of reincarnation. And it could be as light as two people walking down the street and rubbing against each other. And it could also be as deep and vast as the bond we would have with a parent or spouse, even spanning multiple lifetimes.

Chang: Exactly. May I ask you, Greta, have you ever had this feeling of, I’ve met you before; I feel like I already know you, when you meet someone for the first time?

LEE: Something that comes to mind is that I felt a deep misunderstanding with the script, actually (laughs).

Chang: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

LEE: A deep connection with the screenplay. It crossed me. I had such a profound experience reading the wonderful words Celine had written.

CHANG: It’s Céline Song, the screenwriter and director.

LEA: Yes. And it was only a year later that the work materialized. So for me, this idea of ​​destiny and destiny and connection – it’s just embedded in so many aspects of this work and this process. And, yes, I also feel good with, you know, maybe – there was a boy in kindergarten named Jimmy (ph). Jimmy, if you’re there, I think we’ve – we’ve got inyeon (laughs).

CHANG: You met Jimmy in a past life…

LEA: Yes.

CHANG: …Long before kindergarten.

LEE: Yeah.

CHANG: You know, I cried so much, well, throughout the movie but especially at the end. And I’m not going to give anything away, but it filled me with such hope, the ending, because it was, like – there’s such beauty in walking down a path. Yes, you are losing something. You sacrifice something with every choice you make, but you also gain something, don’t you?

LEE: Yeah. I mean, there’s this beautiful moment at the beginning of the movie where Nora’s mom says – and I hope I’m not spoiling that quote – that in order to gain something, sometimes you have to lose something. So exactly. I mean, and I can definitely relate to this idea of ​​love and destiny not as some kind of, like, these neat constructs, but just as a living, breathing entity in itself that evolves with us over the course of our lives.

Chang: Absolutely. Greta Lee stars in new movie ‘Past Lives’. Thank you so much for sharing this moment with us, Greta.

LEE: It was such a pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting me.


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