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'Past Lives' star Greta Lee on 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're so different in so many other ways.


JOHN MAGARO: (As Arthur) Is this what you imagined for yourself when you left Seoul?

GRETA LEE: (As Nora) When I was a 12-year-old?

MAGARO: (As Arthur) Yeah. Is this what you pictured for yourself - laying in bed in some tiny apartment in the East Village with some Jewish guy who writes books?

CHANG: That's Greta Lee starring as Nora, who left Korea as a kid and left behind her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung. Hae Sung tracks her down decades later in New York. Reconnecting with him prompts all kinds of questions for Nora about the path she chose in life and how her decisions have reshaped her identity.


LEE: (As Nora) He still lives with his parents, which is really Korean. He has all these really Korean views about everything. And I feel so not Korean when I'm with him but also, in some way, more Korean - so weird.

CHANG: It's a sentiment that felt so familiar to me as a Taiwanese American woman, that feeling of living in between - between Western and Eastern, 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's Korean Canadian. But if you look at, let's say, the language aspect of it, it was so important to accurately convey the fluidity of language. And when you mention, like, OK, feeling more Asian around certain people or less, that kind of fluctuation is something that is so real and personal to me. And we wanted to bring that to the character in this story.

CHANG: Yeah.

LEE: So in certain ways, it was so crucial to really hone in on and be really specific in certain cases about, well, is she going to sound - how Asian does she sound? How Korean does she sound at the beginning of a scene as opposed to the end of the scene after, let's say, several hours of talking to Hae Sung in Korean? And just being mindful of all of that, I mean, was a reflection of what this experience is that we're talking about - of living in the in-between, experiencing that full spectrum of Western and Eastern and - you know?

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

LEE: Yeah.

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

LEE: Well, there's something so exposing about language, right? I mean, my language, my Koreanness (ph) is something that's so private. And actually, you know, I was, like, surprised and kind of tickled by the response from my friends and family initially when they heard that I was taking this on - this kind of reaction collectively of, like, oh my God. But can you actually speak Korean? You can speak Korean? How good is your Korean? Oh, no. And - but what I feel like what that was honing in on is there is so much to the way we hold on to - whether it's our native language or our second language and what that relationship is like. So that scene - yeah, that scene when she's talking to Arthur about it - it is so personal the fact that her husband can identify that that is something that is a place that he can't go.

CHANG: He can't access.

LEE: He can't, and he is fully cognizant of that.

CHANG: Did you surprise yourself that you could speak Korean so well in this movie? Were you, like, kind of re-accessing this deep reservoir in your own brain? Like, oh, I know this. I can speak so much better than people are giving me credit for.

LEE: I never expected to do a movie in Korean with this much Korean - a movie in any other language...

CHANG: (Laughter).

LEE: ...Other than my primary language, which is English. And being immersed and re-immersed in my Korean and Koreanness - it unlocked a lot of different things. It cracked open, for me, recognizing all the shifts that I'd made in my life and my career, this trajectory of what this means to have this immigrant experience. Yes, we have academic ideas of what assimilation is, but it became really personal. And it was - I think, in a way, it matched maybe Nora's experience of feeling the heartbreak and the loss of identity, letting go of former selves and just reconciling that, you know, the choices that we make - where we live, who we're surrounded by...


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

CHANG: Yes. Well, you segued beautifully into my next question. A Korean concept known as inyeon comes up in this story. Explain what that is really briefly to people who have no idea what this term means.

LEE: Inyeon, to me as I know it, is just about human connectedness. It's rooted in ideas of reincarnation. And it could be as slight as two people walking down the street and brushing up against each other. And it could also be as deep and vast as the connection that we would have with a parent or a spouse, spanning over multiple lifetimes, even.

CHANG: Exactly. Can I ask you, Greta, have you ever felt inyeon before, this feeling of, I've met you before; I feel like I already know you, when you meet somebody for the first time?

LEE: Something that springs to mind is I felt a deep inyeon with the script, actually (laughter).

CHANG: Ah, yeah. Yeah.

LEE: A deep connection with the script. It cut through me. I had such a profound experience in reading the gorgeous words that Celine had written.

CHANG: That's Celine Song, the writer and director.

LEE: Yes. And it wasn't until a year later that the job came to fruition. So for me, like, this idea of destiny and fate and connectedness - it's just embedded in so many aspects of this job and this process. And, yes, I also feel inyeon with, you know, maybe - there was a boy in kindergarten named Jimmy (ph). Jimmy, if you're out there, I think we had - we have inyeon (laughter).

CHANG: You met Jimmy in a past life...

LEE: Yes.

CHANG: ...Way 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 end, because it was, like - there is such beauty in committing to one path. Yes, you lose something. You sacrifice something with each choice you make, but you also gain something, right?

LEE: Yeah. I mean, there's that beautiful moment in the beginning of the movie when Nora's mother says - and hopefully I'm not messing up this quote - that in order to gain something, sometimes you have to lose something. So exactly. I mean, and I can definitely relate to that idea of love and destiny not as sort of, like, these neat constructs but just as a living and breathing entity in and of itself that evolves with us over the course of our lives.

CHANG: Absolutely. Greta Lee stars in the new film "Past Lives." Thank you so much for sharing this time with us, Greta.

LEE: This was such a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DARLINGSIDE SONG, "OLD FRIEND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.