Past Lives

dir. Celine Song, 2023

Hae Sung (left: Teo Yoo) and Nora (right: Greta Lee) stand across from one another on an empty New York City street. They stare wistfully into each other's eyes.
Image credit: A24

Three strangers—a woman and two men—perch together at a dive bar in New York City. Onlookers, made known only by voice, imagine the perceived relationship between them. Sat in the middle, the woman drags her gaze upwards before fixing it on us. Her eyes are heavy with feelings that are yet to be defined.

In the 2020s, the virtual houses itself within real life as if it has always nested there. Likewise, the concept of making and affirming connections through the internet becomes less alien with each passing year. The potential for spontaneous digital connection is threaded into the tapestry of contemporary existence as naturally as pairs of eyes, looking across from one another, meeting by chance on a train during one afternoon.

Celine Song’s Past Lives rests on themes of attachment, connection and reconnection in a time in which the digital and material have become inseparable. Song revitalises the well-worn cinematic narrative of re-establishing personal ties from previous eras of life, combined with this online accessibility we now place ourselves in. It initially focuses on two of the aforementioned bar characters—childhood sweethearts Na Young and Hae Sung (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo)—growing up in Seoul, whose paths diverge and reconverge over the course of 20 years. At its pivotal moment in adolescence, Na Young is uprooted and emigrates to the Americas, while Hae Sung continues along a conventional life road in South Korea. A small fish facing a bigger pond of life, Na Young—now known as Nora—grapples with her new immigrant status. But, as her mother consciously says: ‘When you leave something behind, you gain something, too.’

Song’s theatrical resumé influences her reliance on the implied tenet: ‘less is more’. Settings are sparse, symbolism subdued and drama: dialogue driven—this is a character study, at heart. If not for the clear and disparate cultural line drawn between New York and Seoul by its players, context would verge on irrelevant. After all, stories of romance and feeling orbit around relationships between people, not place. But, inevitably, location becomes the tense conflict meshed with the ‘what if?’ at the core of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship as adults. After reconnecting during university years, they rekindle a modern-day Kafka and Milena long-distance romance that exists purely online. Their wholesome reconnection—driven by a desire to relive fond childhood memory—cushions the disharmony of daily grown-up life for Hae Sung, and reminds Nora that roots previously laid down in her South Korean homeland were not as cleanly severed as she had imagined.

The crux of the film, held together by the 8,000-layer in-yun concept of providence and fate in relationships, is tested by the long-awaited introduction of the second man at the bar: Nora’s soon-to-be husband, Arthur. Past Lives reveals its true sensitivity in its handling of Nora’s second major romance. Here, dramatic instinct met with the fate notion seeks to misdirect and encourage the demonisation of Arthur as interloper. Even Arthur self-characterises as the ‘evil white American husband’ in his story, obstructing the path to love’s destiny and the unification of Nora and Hae Sung. Doomed romances in dramatic terms require a fairytale aspect of kismet-versus-strife. However, in reality, emotional maturity recognises that lasting compatibility is built on mutual understanding and the consistent alignment of personal values. Despite complex romantic threads tied to Hae Sung—which may resist loosening—Nora and Arthur are fated to belong together precisely because they choose each other, with intention. To this end, and to her credit, Song unites measured action with a depth of emotion to render a new romantic-cinematic sensibility.

The dramatic success of Past Lives is underscored by emotional complexities manoeuvred carefully in the manner of sincere adults; feelings gently held and thoughtfully considered. In Song’s world, touch is not the definitive point at which romantic attraction intersects. Instead, empathetic and platonic expressions contain similar, if not higher, worth than the physical dimension of romantic love. Indeed, the moving hug shared by Nora and Hae Sung when meeting for the first time since childhood—incidentally, their first real-life contact as actors—exemplifies a lost significance once attributed to smaller, yet powerful, gestures. In a decade when cinema is hasty to throw characters into bed with one another, Past Lives chooses to assign poignancy to a broader spectrum of human graces. It declares that value can be applied to actions of romance not merely satisfied by sexual conquest; even more so when building the foundational mutual respect and reciprocal emotional love that supercede narrative impulse for immediate bodily intimacy.

Past Lives ascribes bonafide meaning to a serious romance left unfulfilled. Delicate moments might have been unsoftened by the premature introduction of physicality; in its place a vital affinity is found in the space between its central couple. This impasse provides a hefty sense of ‘almost’ that initially dissatisfies, but ultimately exceeds expectations for a contented and clear-cut ending. A delayed emotional pay-off instead becomes a life-affirming tribute to romantic sensibility. Forever bestowed is the ‘romantic’ epithet to a film that moves beyond the desire for intimate closure to a sensitive understanding of the elaborate nature of love—in all of its layers.