dir: Celine Song
Past Lives, a semi-autobiographical story, is a lot of things to different people. If you want it to be the greatest film of the year, it can be. For you. It’s on a lot of film critics lists already.
The thing is, if you’re going to do that, say it’s one of the best films of the year, you’re really going to have to do yeoman’s work showing to the uninitiated *why* it’s so great.
Its charms, I would argue, are ineffable and hard to grasp. It is a really well-made film, with perfect performances. But it’s realised in such a personal way, one which doesn’t tell us what to think or how to feel about any particular scene, such that we impose our own feelings, our own impressions onto what we’re watching.
The film opens as three characters sit at a golden bar. A couple of voices, perhaps representing us, the viewers, try to theorise as to what’s going on over there. Are the Asian male and female a couple, or siblings, and who is the white guy next to them? An interloper? Why does he look so insecure and unhappy? Why does the female look so happy and energised, with those energies directed towards the other Asian guy, and deliberately physically turning her back on the other guy?
We are going to find out, but we’re still going to wonder. And yet (the woman) looks directly at us (down the camera), as if to challenge us, as if to say “you think you know what their story is, but you have no idea”.
Though it’s called Past Lives, this is not a supernatural romance about people finding each other over the course of multiple incarnations. In truth sometimes we get to live multiple lives even over the course of the one life we’re given.
As kids, there are these two friends, at school, twenty four years ago. One is Hae-Sung (Seung Min-Yim as a kid, Teo Yoo as an adult), the other is Na Young (Seung Ah Moon as a kid, Greta Lee as an adult). They’re just kids at school. They are friends, but they are competitive. Na Young usually gets the top mark, but there’s one time she doesn’t, and it’s Hae-Sung who got the top mark.
So Na Young cries. She often cries, but only with Hae-Sung. Whether to be comforted, whether he’s the only one that would care, whatever the dynamic, that’s the way it is.
They walk home from school together; their mothers set up a play date, where the kids play at a park with mechanical sculptures and such. I assume it’s in Seoul, somewhere.
But Na Young’s family, her sister and her chain smoking mum and dad, are moving to Toronto, seemingly forever. Hae-Sung only hears about it last minute. And then they walk home, part ways, and that’s that.
Na Young and her sister change their names to Anglecised names. Na Young becomes Nora. It’s a small point but it has an impact.
Twelve years later, when Nora has moved from Toronto to New York, and works as a playwright, she finds out that someone has been trying to contact her through Facebook. Before that moment, we suppose that much of those 12 years were spent on education, on finding out who she is as a Korean person in North America, navigating complex social / academic hierarchies, maybe the whole gamut of human experiences relevant to people of a certain level of socio-economic status and means, and what that means about what she perceives to be her identity.
So what does it mean to reconnect with someone she hasn’t thought about that much in twelve years?
Nora and Hae-Sung start having these chats over the internet, she with her halting Korean, he seemingly baffled and with very little English. And there’s a strange energy between them. It implies that whatever bond they shared twelve years ago is still present. Although maybe that’s just wishful thinking on their part.
One could make the argument that 24 years ago, falling out of touch with someone could mean you could go for the rest of your life without being able to reconnect with them. Twelve years ago, it was far less likely. And today we have to practically block the multitudes who want to connect with / abuse us online. We can’t get away from them.
But even after having reconnected after all that time, Nora’s work and commitments mean she can’t go back to Seoul any time soon, and Hae-Sung’s ambitions post-military service involve moving to China, learning Mandarin and working as an engineer, which means he’s not likely to be able to get to the States any time soon either.
This tension, this being in an in-between state, wears on Nora. Whatever happiness she feels from having Hae-Sung in her life is mitigated by the fact that they don’t have a current life to share in proximity to each other.
I can’t even rightly qualify what “this” thing between them is. I don’t know if it’s “romantic”, as in, that they imagine that if they were in the same place at the same time that they could be a couple. They never say overtly lovey-dovey stuff, and they never anything salacious (long distance sexy talk) either.
But the feeling is there, the yearning for something, so much so that it convinces Nora that she needs a break from their chats. A twelve year break.
Another twelve years? Is that perhaps unlikely, or too symmetrical? At the very least it brings us up to now, or at least very close to the present.
Immediately after their virtual “break up”, Nora travels to a writer’s workshop? Writer’s retreat? Something like that. And wouldn’t you know it, she meets the guy we saw at the start, the aggrieved looking sad chap sitting next to her at the bar.
Arthur (John Magaro) is apparently a successful writer, and he seems charming and squared away when he and Nora start their relationship. But, hey, doesn’t every guy seem charming and like they’ve got their shit together at the start, before you get to know them?
Although, I have to admit I was a bit confused about the scene where he’s doing a book launch / book signing, and the title of the book appears to be Boner? Did I get that right? I hope not. I hope I’m mistaken.
They seem to have an okay relationship, but there are aspects of longing even within their relationship – he wishes he had a better understanding of Korean, because when Nora talks in her sleep, she seems to only dream in Korean. He’s a Jewish American chap, but it feels like there are some aspects of Nora that are unknowable to him.
Is there a reticence on her part? Does she hold something back, because…
Twelve years after their last interaction, Hae-Sung contacts Nora again, and this time it’s because he’s coming to the States, ostensibly on a holiday, but really just to see her. He’s had a relationship end, somewhat unceremoniously, but get the impression the main problem in that relationship may have been that the woman in question wasn’t Nora.
We, the audience, infer a lot. Some elements are openly, thunderously used to whack us over the head, with dialogue that doesn’t sound like stuff people would say other than in a play on stage. Other elements are understated. Hae-Sung, when practically being taunted by Nora as to his relationship falling apart, enumerates a bunch of reasons as to why his relationship couldn’t progress to a marriage, given the differing socio-economic pressures in Korea.
Contrast this with the reasons why Nora marries Arthur. It’s practical (they don’t have heaps of money, and instead of living in separate one bedroom apartments in the East Village, they move into one one-bedroom apartment, and she needs a green card to stay), not romantic. There may be love, there may be companionship, there may be a meeting of minds that supports both of them creatively, but it’s not the all-consuming love we expect, we demand from movies that are said to be romantic.
It’s not an all-consuming passion. We always expect that the people who are the leads in a movie are either going to eventually get together by the end, unless there’s some absolutely gutting reason not to.
But we don’t even know that Hae-Sung and Nora are “meant” to be together, whatever that means. Who even are they to each other? A path not taken? A “what could have been?” Is it the eternal promise of something that never happened as a “what if?” that permanently clouds their lives and relationships?
Maybe it’s true of both of them. There is an energy there, conveyed through looks and verbal cues, that doesn’t always match dialogue or even need dialogue. But we know that there isn’t necessarily something substantial there. Even if Hae-Sung holding on to some version of Na Young / Nora in his head all these years has damaged his ability to be present in relationships, or left him permanently wistful, it doesn’t mean a) he knows anything about the Nora that exists now, or b) that the “Nora” in his head is a real person.
At one point he accuses Nora of being the “Nora that leaves”, rather than a Nora that would have stayed with him, and, mate, I have to say, that felt profoundly unfair. Twelve-year old Na Young clearly had no ability to stop her family from moving to Canada.
And when Nora says that, when he teases her about her crying all the time when they were kids, that upon moving to Canada, that she stopped crying because there was no-one who cared whether she was crying, does that imply that she somehow “changed”, or that she stopped crying because Hae-Sung wasn’t around to console her anymore?
They both acknowledge, somewhat begrudgingly, that whatever they carry in their heads doesn’t match reality. That can still hurt, though.
Arthur, to his credit, though he tries to be gracious, looks like a kicked puppy a lot of the time. He’s not outwardly a prick to Hae-Sung, but we get the strong impression that he is quite insecure. At one point practically daring the audience to yell out “break that fourth wall!” he says to Nora that if their lives were a novel, he would be seen as the villain, as the one stopping the star-crossed lovers from being together.
The flick isn’t anywhere near that crass. When Hae-Sung says that he wanted to meet Arthur, and is glad he’s a nice guy, but didn’t realise how much it would hurt, it’s like a hefty punch to the stomach, and it lingers awhile. You might spend some time thinking about what he’s been thinking about, for years, but then you have to stop yourself, because it’s enough to drive anyone mad.
There are a bunch of perfect scenes, too many to count, all which are in synch with the score and the performances. The scene that could have been such a cliché, considering the New York landmarks it uses in the background, are remarkable, and also fairly bracing. It’s good to have a reminder of what Lady Liberty, the beacon to the world’s poor, huddled masses, used to stand for. What she used to say about how America saw itself.
No longer. Things change. People change, but feelings can linger forever, it seems. Relationships can be brief, or long, but those bonds sometimes persist.
And what they mean is left up to us to decide. I dare anyone to watch this film, watch that last scene, and not feel exactly what director Celine Song wanted us to feel right at the end, all the ambivalence, all the contradictory emotions, and the relief, in that last scene.
I have to admit it’s pretty much an amazing film, but I can easily see how people not engaged by the narrative or the performances could watch it and think “meh, who are these people and why would I care about them?” But others who are engaged could see what the spectrum of feelings Song is trying to get across, sometimes subtly, sometimes bluntly, but always with deftness and care.
Past Lives. Sometimes we don’t even have to die and be reincarnated in order to become new people living different lives.
9 times we never get to step into the same river twice, because we’re not the same people, and it’s never the same river out of 10
“What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?” – we’ll never know - Past Lives