Directed by playwright and debutant filmmaker Celine Song, Past Lives is a brilliant romantic drama film that makes one ponder the various stages and possibilities of love and the various modifications in an immigrant’s life. Loosely based on parts of Song’s own life, the film presents two childhood friends, Hae Sung and Nora, who keep separating and then connecting with each other over and over again despite the great barriers of distance. From extremely realistic dialogue and characters to restrained but aesthetic camerawork, Past Lives is beautiful in almost every aspect and is easily one of the best films of the year so far.
Plot Summary: What is the film about?
Past Lives begins with a scene of three characters sitting at a bar—a Korean man and woman, and an American man. As they are seen from a distance, a couple behind the camera discusses the possible relationship between these three individuals. Ranging from the Koreans being a couple and the American being their tour guide to all three of them being work colleagues with some special bond, a number of possibilities are discussed with no certain answer found. It is then up to the film itself to take us back twenty-four years and thousands of miles to the South Korean city of Seoul in order to reveal who these individuals are.
Through the hilly streets of Seoul city, two children of about twelve are seen returning home from school. The girl, Na Young, is very upset about something as she cries the whole way home, and upon insistence from her companion, Hae Sung, the real reason is revealed. In a very rare instance, Hae Sung has scored more marks than Na Young and has topped their class, making the girl upset because of this defeat. But such rivalries and silly fights are part of Na Young and Hae Sung’s budding bond, as the two are extremely close friends with a growing interest in each other. In a few days’ time, the two spend some loving time together on a date at a local park, accompanied by both their mothers. It is now that Na Young’s mother reveals that their family is soon leaving South Korea and immigrating to Canada. Despite being established writers and artists, the parents had decided to arrange for a better life for their two daughters, hence the plan to move away.
Then, suddenly, one fine day, Hae Sung and the rest of the schoolmates learned that Na Young would be moving away. The young girl is innocently determined to bag a prize like the Nobel someday, and while she is excited about the new life that is waiting, she also feels the grief of moving away from Hae Sung and Seoul. The boy, on the other hand, is extremely hurt and confused, and he bids Na Young one last goodbye.
For twelve long years after this, the two friends have no contact with each other at all. It is only in 2012 that Na Young, now named Nora Moon, finds her old friend Hae Sung on Facebook and decides to send him a message.
How Do The Two Friends Find Each Other And Then Lose Touch Again?
After moving to Canada and growing up in Toronto, Na Young changed her name to Nora before immigrating once again to the United States for higher education and her professional life. It is while in New York that Nora first discusses the prospect of finding old friends with her mother and then searches for Hae Sung on Facebook. While doing so, she finds that Hae Sung is already looking for her, and the young woman does not have to think twice before sending a message. Once Nora and Hae Sung reconnect with each other, regularly chatting and then even having video call sessions over Skype also become daily affairs. As many might remember, the early 2010s were indeed a time of new ways to stay in touch with friends, with faster internet connections opening up newer possibilities, and Past Lives really makes a good effort to bring back those times.
When the two characters finally catch up with each other and even make new introductions since this is the first time they are talking as adults, there is once again that very easy bond that once existed between them. It is quite evident that the relationship that had started to take shape between the two children was one of innocent attraction beyond friendship. Hae Sung later admits as well that he was in love with the girl, even though he understood very little of it because of his young age. But since their relationship had stopped even before it began and the bond was forcefully hindered because of the family leaving the country, the mutual interest and attraction did seem to stay. This is all the more the reason why the two instantly became close, once again, over video calls and emails. Plus, as a young woman living in the US, Nora’s interest in her native city of Seoul and everything about Korea and its culture is also piqued by Hae Sung.
There are moments when Hae Sung virtually takes Nora out on trips through Seoul, showing her places that she yearns to return to. However, throughout the duration of Past Lives, there are very realistic transitions in relationships, and so the situation between the two friends changes once again. Perhaps as an Asian woman growing up in the West, Nora always has to look at the functional and realistic side of things despite sometimes wanting to hold on to desires from her childhood. She is now a professional writer dreaming of making it big in New York, and so, after initially enjoying Hae Sung’s virtual company, Nora does eventually question what is going to come out of it. She admits that she cannot even imagine leaving her life in New York and going over to Seoul to be with her lover, and similarly, the engineer Hae Sung also cannot upend his own life and come over to the States. Therefore, with no possibility of a future together, Nora brings an end to their relationship or conversations, saying that she wants to stay away, at least for some time.
What Happens When Hae Sung Finally Comes To New York?
Twelve more years pass since Hae Sung and Nora are no longer in contact, and a lot changes for the woman during this time. During a writer’s retreat around New York, she met the love of her life, another writer named Arthur Zaturansky. After a period of romance, Nora and Arthur eventually married, and the two now live together in their New York apartment. Despite being a Jewish American throughout his life, Arthur makes small efforts to try to understand Nora’s culture and even learn her language. It is evident that the two have a real bond and love for each other, but they also sometimes have quarrels with each other. As Nora later explains, staying together with someone is almost like two different plants having to survive inside the same pot. This is all the more true for a multicultural couple like Nora and Arthur, and this is what sometimes gives birth to a lot of their differences. Nonetheless, the couple have a really good time with each other, even after years of romance, and it is now that Hae Sung suddenly sends Nora an email, informing her that he is coming to New York.
It is initially claimed by both Hae Sung, to his friends, and by Nora, to her husband, that the only reason for Hae Sung’s visit to America is vacation, relaxation, and seeing the new country. However, it becomes very evident soon after that Hae Sung has actually decided to visit in order to meet Nora, whom he still loves. Nora tells Arthur about this as well, and despite the understandable initial skepticism of the husband, he does not intend to stop Nora from having such an experience. When Hae Sung finally visits, and Nora and Arthur talk about this, it is really the perspective of the immigrant that comes to light more than anything else. The woman admits that the idea of meeting Hae Sung after all these years actually makes her feel less Korean than she actually is. Having spent most of her life in Canada and the US, Nora has obviously lost touch with her Korean roots, with the culture, and with the language. Therefore, to have someone like Hae Sung, whose beliefs and outlook on life are still very Korean, is to be constantly reminded of what she has left behind in life.
Arthur also expresses his thoughts and self-doubts in this regard, as he talks about how there is still a shortcoming in his love for Nora. As he explains, one of the most noteworthy things he finds about Nora is the fact that the woman still starts speaking in Korean in her dreams. As much as language has never been a hindrance in their relationship, Arthur also cannot help but imagine whether there is an entire section of his wife’s mind that he does not have any idea about. It is mainly for this reason that he has started to learn Korean, and now, hearing about Hae Sung and the very Korean representations that he has in Nora’s mind, Arthur does seem to grow unsure. However, the man’s thoughts, feelings, or expressions are in no way toxic or insensitive, and instead, his doubts actually make viewers feel quite sympathetic towards him.
What Is The Concept Of “In-Yun” Presented In The Film?
Nora talks about the Korean belief of “In-Yun” in Past Lives, which suggests that every lover in the present life has actually met each other over multiple past lives, even in the most basic way, to then finally come together as lovers in the present. Based on the Buddhist beliefs and philosophies of reincarnation and rebirth, in-yun does not necessarily have to mean romance in the current life either, as two strangers who brush past each other on the streets can actually have been lovers in their past lives. In the film, this concept seems to suggest that human love and the effort to be with one’s lover depend on so many more factors than just two individuals’ love for each other that it has to be an effort over multiple births and lives.
In the case of Nora and Hae Sung, the two definitely have love between them and could have also perhaps been together had their lives panned out differently. Even now, at present, Hae Sung does confess his love to Nora, even after all this time, but their time has surely moved on. The man does live on with regret and contempt for what could have been had he taken the decision to visit the United States twelve years ago. For Nora, that ship has completely sailed, and she cannot even imagine what life could have been otherwise, even though she does seem to give it a thought at the most sensitive moments. Back when her family first left Korea, Nora’s mother had claimed that one gains something by losing something else. To Nora, especially as an Asian immigrant, life seems to have always been about finding the right balance between what to give up for what new benefit, and she has always had to make a choice.
Finally, in Past Lives‘s ending, when Hae Sung waits for his Uber to arrive, there is one last moment between him and Nora that feels charged with emotions and possibilities, but neither of them does anything. Instead, the two old lovers simply stand and look at each other before the car arrives, and the moment fades away. Hae Sung once again calls back to Nora, and he now wonders whether their failed love is actually part of in-yun for some next life, in which they would finally be able to be lovers. None of them have an answer for this, and instead, the only certainty is that their love, relationship, or bond is simply not possible in this lifetime. Nora does break down, possibly thinking of the many possibilities that could have been. Like a genuine lover over the ages, she finds Arthur waiting for her, and it is the husband who calmly consoles Nora and takes her back home. To some extent, it is once again this choice, between Arthur and her entire life in New York, that Nora has to make, and she once again has to give up on her childhood friend from Korea in order to do so.