Playwright Celine Song makes her feature directorial debut with Past Lives, a work of remarkable delicacy and humor about fate, connections, and the narratives we event for our lives.
Drawing on Song’s own background as a Korean-Canadian immigrant who ends up a writer in New York, Past Lives tells the story of childhood sweethearts Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who are separated abruptly at age twelve when Nora and her family immigrate to Canada. They lose track of each other until twelve years later, when social media and smartphones make global connection and communication possible. They fight through first-gen video calling and spotty internet connections to speak almost every day, until Nora decides they should stop talking for a bit, thus ending their undeclared relationship. Jumping forward another twelve years, Nora is married to a fellow writer, Arthur (John Magaro), and Hae Sung comes to New York just to see her.
Woven into Past Lives is the concept of in-yun, which Nora defines as “Korean for providence”. It’s the intangible connection formed between two spirits over their respective reincarnation cycles, and it is said that when two people marry, they have “eight thousand layers” of in-yun between them. Fate, providence, in-yun—it’s the push-pull that keeps Nora and Hae Sung connected despite decades and continents between them. Nora doesn’t seem to believe in it, but Hae Sung does, at least enough to justify going to see Nora in New York.
Song, who also wrote the script, directs Past Lives with confidence and a dreamy touch of unreality, often mis-matching visuals and dialogue, lingering on her actors’ faces as they listen to someone else speak, or moving her camera to observe environments and landscapes rather than prosaic motions of life. At times, Past Lives recalls the work of Kelly Reichardt—an impression enhanced by the presence of John Magaro, one of Reichardt’s go-to actors—so focused on ordinary life in a way that Past Lives is focused on the ordinariness of love.
Arthur ponders if Nora is with him because of a higher influence like in-yun, or just because they met at a moment both were single, had writing in common, and Nora needed a green card, which prompted them to take that final step in their relationship. Nora dismisses his worry with a simple, “I love you,” and for her, it is that simple. Call it in-yun or call it coincidence, but Nora met Arthur, who was present with her in a way Hae Sung could not be and she fell in love with him. Necessity does not undercut sincerity, she loves him, it is enough.
But it’s clear that Arthur and Hae Sung have less organized feelings about it. They make an odd threesome, as established in the first scene of the film. Song unpacks their impenetrable relationship throughout the film, tracing Nora’s path from her childhood in Korea with Hae Sung to her married life in New York with Arthur, and the moments and connections and missed opportunities add up to Hae Sung’s rueful confession that it “hurts” to actually like her husband. And Arthur might always be a little bit insecure about the parts of Nora he cannot know, particularly those formed in her Korean childhood, but he is her husband, she is his to love in this lifetime, if perhaps not the next.
The poignancy of Past Lives arises not only from the distant longing of Nora and Hae Sung, but from a sense of time outside of this one contrasted to the very plainness of this life. There is nothing extraordinary about Nora and Hae Sung. There are no flashes to the other lives suggested through in-yun. There is no flash-forward assuring us they meet again, and align better, in the future. There is only this life, with its many vagaries that add up to Nora and Arthur, not Nora and Hae Sung. But there is still a deep well of romance in the film, from the low light of a bar to a hot summer night to childhood sweethearts meeting as adults in a place reminiscent of their shared past. Romance is small, and yet all encompassing, it connects and separates Nora and Hae Sung, and Nora and Arthur in turn.
Past Lives is a kind of realist rom-com—there are several laugh-out-loud moments, especially in the final third of the film—in which there is no bad guy, yet someone is going to go home broken hearted, but the utter confidence of the heroine convinces you everything is as it should be. The draw between Nora and Hae Sung is palpable, and Lee and Yoo fully capture the yearning of thwarted lovers, but their circumstances are shaped by forces beyond their control—Nora’s parents’ decision to immigrate—and their in-yun does not have enough layers to overcome the forces that propelled Nora toward Arthur. But is that bad? Arthur is deeply in love with Nora, and he’s a good partner for the woman she is.
Past Lives is not about happy endings, it's about the layers of a life, of lives, how the weft and weck of fate, the universe, whatever, can lead us toward and away from the things and people that we want. But we are often making decisions half-blind in the dark, unknowing that a “break” can turn into twelve years of silence, or that a chance meeting in the countryside can lead to a lifelong love.
Perhaps it is in-yun towing us across space-time to where we were always meant to be, or maybe that’s just a story we tell ourselves to soothe the sting of loss, or maybe it’s a story about how we found our soulmate. Or maybe it is all random and all that matters, in the end, is that we love, and are loved, in this life if no other.
This review was published during the WGA strike of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers. Past Lives is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Attached - Greta Lee at a Tribeca Film Fest event today in New York.