What you need to know
“Past Lives” is a poignant and well-observed character study of an immigrant whose past in the old country walks into her present.
In the novel Ender’s Game (whose author is homophobic, by the way), there’s a scene where protagonist Ender has to part with his first and best friend, Alai:
The next day he passed Alai in the corridor, and they greeted each other, touched hands, talked, but they both knew that there was a wall now. . . . [T]he only real conversation between them was the roots that had already grown low and deep, under the wall, where they could not be broken. . . . Alai is a stranger, [Ender thought,] for he has a life now that will be no part of mine, and that means that when I see him we will not know each other.
Past Lives, the debut feature written and directed by playwright Celine Song based on her own experience, explores that kind of relationship, rooted in memory alone.
Na-young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae-sung (Leem Seung-min) are childhood sweethearts separated when the former’s family emigrates to Canada. Twelve years later and doing an MFA in New York, Nora née Na-young (Korean American Greta Lee) reconnects over Facebook with Hae-sung (German Korean Teo Yoo), who’s studying engineering in Seoul. Though both actors are in their forties, Yoo’s hairstyle and wardrobe make him look younger than Lee’s main de-aging tactics of more slouching and a (not drastically) different hairstyle (costumes designed by Katina Danabassis; Melanie Harris served as head of the hair department).
Nora and Hae-sung spend long, schedule-destroying hours Skyping with each other, enveloped in that particular atmosphere of dependency fostered by a long-distance relationship — though Hae-sung notes at one point that they’re “not dating.” But it sure looks like they want to, and when they realize they won’t be able to meet in person for at least a year, they break things off to preserve their sanity.
Another twelve-year time jump brings us to the present, when Hae-sung is finally coming to New York to visit Nora, now married to Jewish writer Arthur (John Magaro). This is where the incredible tearjerker A24 trailer kicks in. Yet despite its echoes of The Fountain (2006), the preceding two acts have clued us into the much smaller scope. The in-person reunion is built on the past foundations of innocent friendship and lonely companionship. Is this enough for love? One character hopes so, one fears it may be so, and one says to her husband after spending a day with Hae-sung, “I shouldn’t have gone.”
These incommensurate starting points lead to an intricate frisson throughout Hae-sung’s two-day three-night vacation in New York, and a delicious chance for the actors to display their acting chops. In long-take mid-length dolly shots (edited by Keith Fraase; cinematography by Shabier Kirchner), Nora and Hae-sung catch up slowly; each line of dialogue is a feeler sent out to determine how the other person understands the relationship, and whether they’re on the same page. For us viewers, it’s obvious: Hae-sung’s puppy dog demeanor and Nora’s performative ease speak volumes.
At night, Nora has to deal with another insecure man. For Arthur the writer, the power of the “childhood sweethearts reunited” story arc is undeniable. Twelve years ago before their first night together, Nora tells him about in-yun or “providence,” the Korean version of Buddhist nidana, in which interactions in past lives lay the basis for relationships in the present one.
Their marriage lacks such a powerful romance, instead following the more ordinary story of meeting the right person at the right place at the right time. When Arthur — dear, gentle, gracious, loving Arthur — brings this up in bed, in a scene of beautiful intimacy, Nora reassures him, stating for the only time in the film that her life with him just is her life. The film shows us that she means it: The following day, Nora meets Hae-sung in line for the Brooklyn sightseeing ferry, and the side-on composition without depth of field portrays them as just two random people conversing in a line of people.
Whose side does the film take? On Hae-sung’s last night, all three go out for dinner and drinks. At the bar, Nora chats with Hae-sung in Korean, while Arthur, sitting on Nora’s other side, listens in with his limited knowledge of the language. We don’t know how much he understands — it’s likely Nora doesn’t know either — but it’s clear that the film gives him, the embodiment of the present, more awareness and control of the scene than Hae-sung, the embodiment of the past.
There’s a spellbinding scene at the very end that I won’t spoil, a scene that reaffirms how, for all the talk of in-yun, the true past life is the one Nora left behind in Korea with Na-young. Closing the door on part of one’s life, no matter how right, no matter how necessary, always hurts. Despite the familiar narrative tropes and a couple of clunky visual metaphors, Song captures exactly what it feels like to bid farewell to our former selves.
Past Lives is in theaters.
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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)
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