Past Lives is A24’s latest romantic venture, capturing a story that spans multiple decades and countries. Following a semi-autobiographical tale of immigration and creating a life in NYC, Celine Song’s directorial debut depicts the missed connections between Nora and Hae Sung as they grow up and, eventually, grow apart.
Director: Celine Song
Release Date: June 2
Past Lives tells a simple story, made complex by layers of emotional will-they won’t-they’s as Nora (played by Greta Lee as an adult and Seung Ah Moon as a child) and Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo as an adult and Seung Min Yim as a child) go from childhood crushes to estranged adults. After Nora moves to Canada from Seoul at 12 years old, she falls out of touch with her classmate Hae Sung. The two have crushes on each other, but Nora’s immigration halts their relationship from developing further.
12 years later, Nora reconnects with Hae Sung from her new home in NYC. The two talk daily and rekindle their relationship until Nora becomes upset by the never-ending distance between the two. The tension between Hae Sung and Nora arises as neither of them wants to give up their respective lives and jobs in Korea and the U.S. Another 12 years go by before Hae Sung finally visits New York, but by that point, Nora has married and is happy with her life as a playwright. Although Hae Sung and Nora still have feelings for one another, they know that nothing can or will result from it.
I want to start out by acknowledging just how beautiful the film looked. Shot on 35mm, Past Lives captures adolescence torn between multiple places (specifically Seoul and New York City). The cinematography adds to the melancholic atmosphere set up by Nora as she struggles with figuring out what she wants.
The blocking between Nora and Hae Sung ties in with their push-and-pull as childhood sweethearts, reunited friends, and mature adults with their own lives. They spend most of the film separated by distance, language, and time zones which is reflected in their on-screen blocking. As children, they are separated by a set of stairs that neatly splits the screen. As young adults they are separated by computer screens, unable to regain the physicality afforded by being on the same continent. And in the last third of the film, they are still separated, even though they are finally reunited. Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro) stands between them, reinforcing the notion that the potential love between Nora and Hae Sung is just that: potential.
Past Lives also does a wonderful job relating its core theme of In-Yun, beautifully explained by Nora as she meets Arthur at an artists’ residence. This Korean phrase describes the inevitability of certain loves in one’s life as something that transcends past lives and past encounters with people. This specific idea also resonates with another core theme delivered by Celine Song, ideas of Koreanness and how immigration shapes one’s identity. Nora, who has by no means given up her Korean identity, discusses the differences between Arthur and Hae Sung and her relationship with these two important men in her life. It makes the audience (and perhaps even Nora) wonder about how her life would be different if her family had never left Korea, although then she likely wouldn’t be married to Arthur and living in NYC.
I think that the final part of Past Lives was the most thematically engaging part of the whole film, as Hae Sung is introduced to Arthur and the rest of Nora’s life in NYC. The awkward tension between the three of them, especially knowing that Hae Sung traveled hours just to see Nora, doesn’t turn negative. In fact, it cements the idea that even though they might have ended up together in a different world, they won’t in this life. And that’s okay. Life rarely works how we think it will.
While I generally enjoyed Past Lives for its melancholy emotions and sun-drenched visuals, I found it hard to completely submerse myself in the story. We see enough of Nora to relate to her feelings and sympathize with her decisions, but a lot of the film didn’t have the tension I was expecting. We don’t see enough of Hae Sung to truly know why he waited (and will maybe continue to wait) over 20 years for Nora. I wanted to like Past Lives more than I did, and while I certainly appreciate what the film says about missed chances and reconnecting with people from your past, I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the chemistry between the two leads. The middle part of the film dragged on for me, as it can be hard to make virtual interactions deeply engaging in a movie. But I think Past Lives accomplished what its story needed to, and for that, it’s worth a watch.
Celine Song’s Past Lives is now playing in theaters.