It’s no surprise to learn that Celia Song’s Past Lives is strongly autobiographical, as no purely fictional tale could resist so many opportunities for dramatic or romantic cliché. The temptation of fiction is to improve on life, to fulfil fantasies and repair omissions by turning back the clock and – this time – getting it right. Life itself is parsimonious with such opportunities. One can’t step into the same river twice. We swallow our regrets and move on.
We can all wonder what life might have been like had we stayed with X, or never met Y, but it’s a futile game. For those unable to accommodate themselves to reality, life is simply unbearable. In this sense, Past Lives is notable for what it leaves out. It is a drama of accommodation, a minimalist romance in which the spectre of a grand passion is held tantalisingly at bay.
I’m sure it’s this superior realism that has touched so many viewers, as the story feels much closer to home than those screen fantasies we experience vicariously. For a movie in which very little happens, Past Lives has been a surprising international hit.
The film begins with a tableau vivant of three people sitting in a bar. An Asian man is exchanging gazes with an Asian woman. Alongside her, at a small distance, sits a western man with a beard. An anonymous voiceover speculates on the relationship between these people, giving expression to our own curiosity.
We cut back 24 years, meeting the Asian man and woman as children in Seoul. Na-young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min), are sweethearts. They hold hands, play together in the park, and accept they’ll probably get married. Or rather, as Na-young puts it, Hae Sung will marry her if she tells him to.
The only problem is that Na-young’s family are about to migrate to Canada, where she will take on the western name, Nora. The parting from Hae Sung happens in a kind of emotional vacuum. They walk home together until their paths diverge. “Bye” is all Hae Sung manages to say.
Twelve years later, Nora (Greta Lee) is an aspiring playwright, living Manhattan. While idly discussing her past life in Korea with her mother, she finds a Facebook message from Hae Sung (Teo Yoon), who has been trying to re-connect with her. She rings him and they talk, face-to-face via their computers. He has done his national service and is studying to be an engineer. During all these years he’s never stopped thinking about her.
The on-line exchange continues, although neither party wants to leave their own country for a meeting. Abruptly, Nora decides they should pause these conversations. Shortly afterwards, at a writers’ retreat, she meets an aspiring Jewish novelist named Arthur (John Magaro), whom she will marry. One wonders about the couple’s combined literary talents in a scene where they talk about “laying” rather than “lying” in bed. At no stage do we see any of their writing, although there is a launch for a novel Arthur has written, with the fetching title of Boner.
Twelve more years go by, and suddenly Hae Sung gets in touch again. He is coming to New York and wants to see Nora. She wants to see him too, even though it creates a tense situation with her husband who fears Nora will not to able to resist the literary allure of nostalgic lost love.
As the couple have not seen each other in the flesh for 24 years, Hae Sung’s visit is fraught with anticipation. Song plays these scenes for all they are worth, making them tingle with awkward pauses, intense glances and fumbled conversation. Nora is still the positive, assertive personality, Hae Sung is almost painfully passive. He clings to his infatuation with Nora, while being only too aware she is a married woman. His shyness and inhibitions render push her out of reach. She hovers somewhere between her own sense of propriety, and the desire to draw out those words of love he is holding back.
It’s not just the years or Nora’s marriage that stands between them, it’s the realisation that they embody two different cultures. Hae Sung still lives with his parents and has broken with a girlfriend whose family believes his profession is not prestigious or lucrative enough. By contrast Nora married Arthur almost on a whim, prompted by the added incentive of a green card.
Hae Sung is a humble engineer, who works under his boss’s thumb, while Nora is a free-spirited Bohemian who dreams of winning awards for her plays.
Arthur, who comes across as almost too sympathetic a character, waits anxiously at home while Nora and Hae Sung ride the ferry to the Statue of Liberty or take photos by the Brooklyn Bridge. He knows that to deny Nora this encounter is to risk losing everything. But when Nora brings her childhood sweetheart home, and the three of them go sit in a late-night bar, it’s Arthur’s presence – and perhaps the alcohol – that finally loosens Hae Sung’s tongue.
One motif that occurs again and again is the Korean concept of In-yun, meaning fate or providence. The idea is that people who feel attracted to each other were somehow connected in a previous life. The nature of the relationship may be mysterious, but a powerful, inexplicable sense of longing remains. Hae Sung and Nora speculate on what they might have meant to each other in a previous life, or even in the present one if her family had stayed in Seoul. Migration, we realise, is also a form of reincarnation.
This sparse, touching film is full of small symbols and references, from artworks and posters to the way bridges, stairs, or even the Statue of Liberty are used to reflect on personal relationships. There are also songs that comment on the action, such as Leonard Cohen’s That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, when Nora’s family is leaving Seoul; and John Cale’s You Know More Than I Know, when the three protagonists sit together in the bar. It’s Song’s silences, however, that are the eloquent and agonising parts of the story. There are not many films in which the most heart-stoppng scene involves two people standing still and silent on a footpath.
Written & directed by Celia Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ah, Leem Seung-min, Ji Hye Yoon
USA/South Korea, M, 111 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 9 September, 2023