Past Lives is a gentle reflection on life’s what ifs, the roads not taken, and issues on identity and immigration.
2023 marks the revival of the big screen. Hollywood and even the local film industry are on a roll after a three-year pause during the pandemic. With blockbusters such as Barbie, Oppenheimer, and The Little Mermaid, movie theaters are packed once again.
Amid all the big budget productions, one unassuming film with an equally understated premise has won the hearts of many viewers. From the same production company as last year’s surprise hit Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, Past Lives, Celine Song’s debut film is easily one of the best movies this year.
It is hard not to be charmed by the tenderness with which it handles hard truths, especially those surrounding love, separation, longing, regrets—and oh that terrible question, “What if?” Add to that the stellar performance of the main trio, especially Greta Lee’s Oscar-worthy performance as Korean-Canadian-American Nora Lee.
Past Lives, through Song’s deft direction and empathic vision, has become an instant classic, one that belongs in the same shelf as beloved flicks such as Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and the cult favorite Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
A love story that’s not really a love story
The opening scene pretty much sums up the plot’s main conundrum: a love triangle that’s not exactly a love triangle. Sitting side-by-side in a bar are Nora, Arthur (played by the adorable John Magaro), and Hae Sung (brought to life by the smoldering Teo Yeo). We couldn’t hear what they’re talking about, only that of the onlookers who have one question: Who are these three to one another?
It is hard not to be charmed by the tenderness with which it handles hard truths, especially those surrounding love, separation, longing, regrets—and oh that terrible question, “What if?”
I would be as befuddled as they were had I been in the same situation. Without spoiling too much, with the film’s limited screening in Manila meaning that quite many of us haven’t watched the film yet, Nora and Arthur are husband and wife, while Hae Sung is Nora’s childhood friend who’s not really an ex, but not really just a friend either.
And that is why it’s easy to dismiss the film as yet another romantic film. It sure is a story about love—unfulfilled, unconsummated, unrealized—but most stories are about love, too, in one way or another. Peel back the surface a little bit more, and Past Lives touches on other themes as well, notably identity and immigration.
The identity conundrum
The opening scene is one of the film’s most memorable, which was inspired by a similar real-life encounter between Song, her Korean ex, and her husband. During the Melbourne Film Festival, as mentioned in the article by Michael Sun in The Guardian, Song shared that the idea for the film came to her when she was sitting in an East Village cocktail bar, flanked by a former flame from Seoul, who spoke only Korean, and her husband, the screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, who spoke only English.
Of this memory, Song enthused: “I was translating between these two people, and at one point, I realized that I wasn’t just translating between their languages and cultures, but also translating between these two parts of myself as well.”
The opening scene shifts to a flashback where we meet 12-year-old Nora and Hae Sung. Nora is on the brink of migrating to Toronto with her family, leaving Hae Sung behind. The interactions between the two, though spare, show us they have a connection that runs far deeper than just friendship.
Twelve years later, Nora and Hae Sung find their way back to each other, forging what is almost—but not quite explicitly labeled—long-distance relationship. After a particularly lag-filled Skype conversation, a frustrated Nora decides she has had enough, asserting to Hae Sung how she wants to commit to a life in New York after all the sacrifices she has made, lamenting “but I’m sitting around looking for flights to Seoul instead.”
Another 12 years pass, Hae Sung goes on a long overdue vacation to New York where he finally finds himself reunited with Nora, in the same city, after over 24 years.
But Nora is no longer the same Nora he used to play with. She is already married to the soft-spoken Arthur, a fellow writer. More than a change in civil status, however, Nora is, in essence, a very different person already.
Immigration has made her a Canadian, an American, but still a South Korean, all at the same time. And this interplay of identities confuses Nora, as encapsulated in the scene where she recounts her meeting with Hae Sung to her husband, “He’s so Korean. He still lives with his parents, which is really Korean. He has all these really Korean views about everything. I feel so not Korean when I’m with him.”
I have lived in the same country almost my entire life, so I can’t really relate to this on a personal level. But I’ve witnessed the same fragmentation of identity in my relatives, especially in my cousins who were already born in the US. They seem to always grapple with being technically American, but not really, because they are also Filipino; but when here in the Philippines, they’re not seen as entirely Filipino but more American even.
On this displacement and grappling with identities, Song, in the same interview with The Guardian, said: “You lose an entire culture and language which was your only language and culture, but you’ve started a new life.” Being immigrants, just like Nora, puts them in that unique situation of belonging to two places at once. This is something the movie was able to depict in a most pitch perfect way.
And this displacement also leads to grief and to questions like “What if we stayed? Would our lives have been better or worse?”
Hae Sung, despite being the one left behind, also has the same questions, asking Nora toward the end of the film: “Seeing you again and being here makes me have a lot of weird thoughts. What if I’d come to New York 12 years ago? What if you had never left Seoul? If you hadn’t left just like that and we just grew up together, would I still have looked for you? Would we have dated? Broken up? Gotten married? Would we have kids together?”
Song explained how at the end scene, as Nora heads back to their apartment with slow and deliberate steps, Nora is actually processing that grief, the grief of having to say farewell to her motherland, the loved ones who stayed, and the little Nora she left behind.
“At the end when [Nora’s] walking home, of course she’s grieving the possibility of everything that could have been, but also the thing that she’s grieving is the little girl that she never got to say goodbye to properly,” she said in an interview conducted by Elle magazine.
It is an ending that is neither happy nor completely sad, but it couldn’t have been more perfect.