Best of 2023: Sam Song Li on Past Lives

One of the stars of the current Netflix hits series The Brothers Sun on a personal favorite from last year.

One of the films that stuck out to me the most in 2023 was Past Lives by Celine Song. It hit me in a way no other film did. Great films are always awesome to watch, but this one really stood out to me because of what I was going through at the time. I watched it when it came out in June, when I was going through a weird time in my life romantically, and I just really connected with it on a personal level.

It’s such a sincere movie. There’s a lot of truth in Past Lives and a lot of personal touches from Celine Song, the writer-director. I was obsessed with the movie for a month, so I did some digging and watched all the behind-the-scenes interviews. A lot of the story was based on personal experiences Celine went through, rooted in the fact that she was natively Korean, but was living in New York and reestablished a connection with an old friend from Korea. That really stuck with me, because I was living in New York when I saw it, and I’m bilingual and bicultural. I’m fluent in English and Chinese, but I grew up and spent time in China, and I still have friends there. There’s this bizarre experience you have when you’re bilingual and bicultural, where if you access a different language, you access a different part of your brain. (There have been scientific studies showing this is a real phenomenon.) And you almost have multiple personalities because of that. I found the portrayal of that duality and the nuances of that in romantic relationships really eye-opening, and I related to it in a lot of ways, including some of the aspects of being in a biracial relationship.

I don’t know if it’s just because Past Lives is Celine Song’s first movie, but she has such a fresh perspective on filmmaking. There was something very offbeat about the pacing of it, and when the movie was over, I was like, “That’s it – what happens?!” But I feel like the magic and the charm of the movie is that by the end of it, you leave thinking deeply about it. And, in that way, it separates itself from other romance movies, because it’s so authentic to life. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s not there to make you feel good. It’s there to make you reflect on your own life and the nuances and complexities of adulthood in a modern city like New York.

In a time when there are so many conversations about diversity and diversity initiatives, Past Lives is one of those rare movies which is so authentic to its cultures and to a modern experience that it feels like the pinnacle of modern diversity on film. You could talk to any number of New Yorkers who are biracial and bilingual and they’d feel a sense of connection with it, like, what is it like to have a romance or a long-distance relationship that transcends borders? And that’s something that can only be explored when you have access to these different cultures and place them in a melting pot like New York City. Past Lives does a great job of not only incorporating diversity, but of placing diversity itself as the nuance and complexity that makes the film so great.

For all the roles I’ve done, even though I speak fluent Mandarin, I’ve actually never had to be bilingual for a movie role or a studio project. But I would love to, and down the road that would be really cool to do that. I also consider myself somebody who really romanticizes life, and modern romance is a huge part of my life; something that I’m personally going through, but something I’m very attached to as well. I consider myself a hopeless romantic, so I’d definitely love to do a romance movie or a romcom sometime in the future. I think I have a lot to give for something like that.

Sam Song Li is currently starring opposite Maggie Cheung and Justin Chien in the hit Netflix series The Brothers Sun. Born in China, he was raised in Southern California, periodically spending time abroad in various regions of China and Hong Kong. Li attended the University of California, Berkeley and now lives in Los Angeles, California. Shortly after graduating, Li found massive success on social media and became a globally popular comedy creator garnering millions of subscribers and billions of views online. Li then caught the industry’s attention after being cast opposite Simu Liu in Women is Losers, which went on to premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival. Also in 2021, Li was cast opposite Patrick Fabian in AMC’s Better Call Saul, earning him his first television credit. (Photo by Ziyang Wang.)