Past Lives (2023): Exploring the What Ifs
Imagine creating a film that speaks so well to the lasting effects of immigration, the feeling of longing, and the subtlety of romance. Celine Song does so in her semi-autobiographical film Past Lives. Despite it being her debut movie, Song expertly crafts a tender and unconventional love story spanning twenty-four years where her experience as a playwright is echoed in the dominance and emotion expressed through the dialogue.
It is beautifully coincidental that “tender” is such a fitting word to describe many East Asian American films such as Past Lives, which now joins Minari, The Farewell, Tigertail, and others in investigating how to deal with leaving a potential life behind for an alternate life to come into fruition. Past Lives brings an excitement to Asian American cinema in providing a more romantic view of that idea while still being grounded in the sense of gentle melancholy that immigration produces.
Na Young and Hae Sung grow up together in South Korea as best friends who have a bond that even their mothers can’t ignore. When they are twelve years old, the two grow apart as Na Young, now Nora, moves with her family to Canada as her parents seek a change in their lives. Twelve years later, Nora now lives in New York City with aspirations of becoming a professional playwright. One day she reminisces and searches online for Hae Sung and finds that he too has also been searching for her on Facebook. It’s as if it was fate that they had been looking for each other around the same time. She reaches out and the former friends reconnect, having consistent video calls filled with blushing, honesty, and bashful yearning. This communication comes to an end when Nora laments how neither of them will be able to visit each other anytime soon as she is trying to be a successful writer in New York and Hae Sung has to be in South Korea to finish university. She elaborates that they shouldn’t spend all this time thinking about a possible life together when it is unlikely to happen.
After another twelve years, Hae Sung visits Nora and her husband, Arthur, in New York City. Hae Sung’s arrival spurs conversations about his and Nora’s past and all the complicated what-ifs that are entwined within it. The three of their interactions keep viewers unwavering attention for the rest of the movie as they attempt to decipher the genuineness of their words and their slight facial movements. A glance a character gives could be interpreted as a deep lust or concern for another, yet the dialogue they say could present as more of a shallow statement of their feelings. Thus, we rely on those subtle looks or faint smiles actors perform to determine the authentic motives of their characters. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro give amazing performances as so much is just said in their expressions, accompanied by the fantastic score or a deafening silence, for no words to be needed.
The notion of “inyun” is brought up continually throughout the film, inyun essentially being the Korean idea of fates that intertwine throughout different lifetimes. Song writes and directs inyun regarding relationships and how they could exist in another life, but not this one. The characters develop heightened emotions as they contemplate what they were to each other in their past lives, what they could have been in this life, and what they will be in their next life. The film emphasizes the subtle lessons of learning how to accept fate and how to go through the fulfilling journey of receiving closure. Every conversation in the film is so layered, being filled with slow heartbreak and the difficult attempt of trying to understand someone you thought you knew so well. The dynamic differences between Hae Sung and Nora versus Arthur and Nora reveal the complex nature of reconnecting with someone from your past versus attempting to comprehend how your partner’s past impacts the present. This is revealed in their conversations as much is left unsaid between characters, but that makes the film more rooted in reality. In real life, everyday people leave words unsaid because of the fear of confrontation or the consequences of the truth, and Past Lives ultimately expresses that bittersweet experience.