9.9 C

Past lives



A melancholic drama about what it’s like to lose something you never had

The film debut of Korean-American playwright Celine Song, the autobiographical drama Past Lives, infuses familiar forms of romantic comedy with a melancholic exploration of expatriation. What kind of people would (p)remain if you never left home?

Past Lives, like all the best stories, begins late at night in a bar: three people in their thirties, completely engrossed in conversation, blind and deaf to their surroundings. We can’t hear what they’re talking about, but we catch a voyeuristic conversation and the point of view of the couple at the next table: are the Asian man and woman brother and sister, and the white man her boyfriend? But for him, they practically do not change. They are an Asian couple and a white guy is their American tour guide? But why should I be drinking with them at four in the morning? We can’t really tell what these people mean to each other from body language and context. In the following, it will turn out that this is the main question that they ask themselves.

To understand, we have to go back 24 years into the past, to Seoul in the late 1990s. Twelve-year-old Na Young and Hae Sung are on the threshold of a teenage romance that has no chance to blossom – Na Young’s family is moving to Toronto, which will put the child on a very different life path. Contact between them is broken for twelve years, until they find each other through Facebook during their student years. For a while, they are ready to slalom around the opening uncomfortable silences, the time difference, around bad internet connections and frozen images in video calls, but since they are each tied to their own part of the world due to their obligations, Na Young, whose name is now Nora (Greta Lee), breaks this never-defined relationship. Let’s skip another twelve years: “today” Nora lives in New York with her husband, the writer Arthur (John Magaro). After all this time Hae Sung (Theo Yoo) finally announces his visit – he says he’s on vacation, but it’s clear he’s only come for her.

The rarely spoken goodbye between the twelve-year-olds takes place at a crossroads: a symbolic image that illustrates their entire relationship.  Photo: FIVIA - Soldier

Woven into the fabric of Past Lives is the Buddhist concept of in-yun, the intangible connection between two individuals that spans different incarnations and lives. If two individuals find each other and marry, it is because there are eight thousand layers of in-yun between them, Koreans believe. (Unless it’s just a cliché of young people conquering foreigners, as Nora once suggests.) Either way, there’s an invisible thread between Nora and Hae Sung, the film suggests, that doesn’t break despite the continents and decades that separate them. This ever-present idea breathes an element of dreaminess into the action, a touch of magic into the prosaic everyday life of love.

Arthur, to whom Nora already explained the concept of in-yun on their first date, begins to question even their life together: are they connected by fate or just a set of circumstances that have placed themselves in the right places at the right time? Would Nora fall in love with anyone she met at that writer’s residency who liked the same movies and books as she did? In the film, he would be “an evil white guy standing in the way of true love,” he muses out loud. (Fortunately, the film never reduces him to an annoying obstacle to true love or to an offended, jealous husband.) Nora herself does not waste time with existential guesses: she does not see the real difference between fate or chance, if the end result is the same – she loves Arthur and he he has no intention of leaving. If someone chooses us for this life, we have the right to wonder how the dice will fall in all subsequent incarnations?

The film deals with the subject of interracial relationships with great insight and understanding: Arthur worries that he will never understand Nora's essence because

The deeper truth of Nora and Hae Sung’s love is not their unfulfilled longing – at no point does Celine Song suggest that Hae Sung is Nora’s true love, carelessly wasted or lost. Even if in-yun exists, it cannot direct our daily lives. In the here and now, there is only a series of decisions, coincidences, and life turns that ultimately lead to Nora’s life with Athur, not Hae Sung. The focus of Past Lives is not on the happy or unhappy “ending” of a love story: it draws its melancholic romance from the atmosphere of life’s ebb and flow. We make decisions not knowing whether they will bring us closer or separate us from the people we are meant to be. All the rest are just stories we tell ourselves for comfort or as confirmation of our choices.

The heart and soul of the film is the enigmatic Nora: Greta Lee he never lets us into the deeper truth of his ambiguous smirk and piercing gaze – not even in a fourth-wall-breaking scene in which he stares straight into the audience. It is its opposite Theo Yoo, which portrays Hae Sung as a naïve, incorrigible romantic, like a collection of forms that a classic romantic comedy would stick on a female lead. He loves Nora madly, but at the same time he projects all his memories, desires and expectations onto her, which will never be compatible with reality.

Photo: FIVIA - Soldier

Past Lives is – especially for a debut – an incredibly thoughtful and accomplished film; the composition of each frame is precise and deliberate, often defined by the empty space between Nora and Hae Sung, who maintain a safe distance from each other at all times. It treats pauses and silences in conversations with similar attention: in this film, everything left unsaid carries the same weight as the words spoken by the characters.

In the background of many scenes there are couples kissing, talking and walking – in the light of the observation that for something like this there must be at least eight thousand layers of some past encounters between them, Song subtly points to the infinite number of stories that unfold all around us.

Both the idea of ​​parallel/possible lives and the filmic language Past lives they owe a lot to the work of the American filmmaker Richard Linklaterespecially his trilogy Before (Before dawn, Before sunset, Before midnight) – with the difference that Celine Song focuses mainly on the negative space between the two individuals, the chapter that Linklater skipped over in silence. A good twenty years spent apart may not have fundamentally changed Nora and Hae Sung, but it has set them on eternally diverging paths.

Rating: 5

Source: Rtvslo

Subscribe to our magazine


━ more like this


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here