Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives (2023)

‘Past Lives’ director Celine Song cites Czech classic among her favorite films

Past Lives opens in Prague cinemas from today, and the film has built up an impressive resume over the first half of 2023. It was one of the best films we caught at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and is currently considered one of the favorites to win Best Picture at next year’s Academy Awards.

Past Lives director Celine Song is a longtime New Yorker, but she has a strong connection to the Czech Republic. Before personally bringing her film to the Karlovy Vary film fest, she wrote for the Amazon series The Wheel of Time, which is currently shooting its third season in Prague. She’s also a lifelong fan of Czech writer and Closely Watched Trains author Bohumil Hrabal.

Song recently did a Top 10 interview with prestige home video distributor The Criterion Collection, where she chose her favorite 10 films that have been released through the platform. Among those selections: Jiří Menzel‘s classic adaptation of Bohumil Hrabal‘s Closely Watched Trains, which took home an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film in 1968.

“I grew up on the literature of Bohumil Hrabal, and I have read almost every book he’s ever written. Because I love the book that this movie is based on, it was hard to imagine loving the movie as much,” Song tells Criterion.

“However, as Hrabal’s fellow countryman and his deep soul match, Jiří Menzel tells the crushing story of a lazy young man in wartime. I believe every movie about war has the challenge to not accidentally become pro-war propaganda—and this film is passionately antiwar (as is the book) because it leads the audience to feel the complete meaninglessness of war.”

“There are no war heroes in the film, only ordinary nobodies whose passions and joys in life are ended brutally by war, without fanfare or a mention in history books. In the film, under the weight of history, human life is snuffed out as if it were a fly, and humanity is totally flattened. I connect deeply to stories like this.”

The Criterion Collection has released a total of 17 Czech (and Czechoslovak) movies for distribution in the United States and Canada, including most recently Daisies, which was ranked #28 on last year’s Sight and Sound poll of the best movies ever made, and three films by Karel Zeman, whose work was cited by Ryan Gosling as an inspiration for the visual effects in Barbie.

While promoting Past Lives, Song also referenced Prague Castle in a recent Film International interview, comparing the Czech landmark to New York City’s Statue of Liberty. The lead characters in Past Lives, played by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, take a journey to the U.S. landmark while the lifelong New Yorker played by John Magaro mentions that he has never visited it.

“What I was interested in was finding something that feels authentic to me as somebody who lives in New York as how New York feels like,” the Past Lives director noted. “So, for example, I wanted the Statue of Liberty to be in the movie because Hae Sung is a tourist, and Nora is an immigrant. For New Yorkers, Statue of Liberty is not romantic.

“For people in Prague, the castle means nothing to them. For tourists and immigrants, it’s a lovely symbol and a magnificent and amazing thing. I knew that they needed to go to Statue of Liberty for that reason. But, what I didn’t want is some drone shots or something where there are other spectacular things. I wanted the scene from a boat. I wanted it to be a little bit like when you actually go to see it because I have actually gone and seen it.”

These are Past Lives director Celine Song‘s 10 favorite films in The Criterion Collection:

  1. The Tin Drum (1979)
  2. My Dinner with André (1981)
  3. High and Low (1963)
  4. Pina (2011)
  5. The Age of Innocence (1993)
  6. Barry Lyndon (1975)
  7. The Celebration (1998)
  8. Howards End (1992)
  9. Closely Watched Trains (1966)
  10. And Everything Is Going Fine (2010)

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

One Response

  1. Can definitely see a Czech New Wave influence in Past Lives. Closely Watched Trains for sure but Loves of a Blonde makes a good comp too.

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