8 Ways ‘Past Lives’ Will Haunt You
Aug 31, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Aug 31, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
Cinema has become replete with multiverses, alternate realities, and parallel dimensions, as of late. Whether arriving in the form of superhero blockbusters (The Flash, Spider-Man: No Way Home), romantic dramas (Sliding Doors, Look Both Ways), or award-winning fare (Everything, Everywhere, All At Once), the notion of lives playing out differently based on our decisions is one irresistible to storytellers.
The storyteller here is Celine Song, who was inspired to write the film after an experience where she found herself seated between her English-speaking husband and Korean-speaking ex-boyfriend. Serving as their translator, Song realized that she was bridging the gap between who she was now, and the person she was in Korea.
Thus, the seeds for Past Lives were sown, resulting in a remarkably raw and honest film that premiered to critical acclaim at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. With Oscar buzz in the air for her debut feature, Song’s work has clearly struck a raw, very real nerve.
Nora (Greta Lee, The Morning Show, Across the Spider-Verse) is a Korean immigrant pursuing her dream of becoming a playwright in New York. Half a world away from the life she left behind, her existence is disrupted when she reconnects with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, New Year Blues, Pawn) on social media.
When Nora decides to concentrate on her career, twelve years pass before the two speak again. This time, Hae Sung has made his way to America to visit, and his presence will put the now-married Nora’s relationship with her husband (John Magaro, The Umbrella Academy) to the ultimate test.
Past Lives isn’t just a look at the life Nora could have had if she’d stayed in Korea, it’s an exploration of the person she became to conform to her new surroundings. Greta Lee perfectly embodies the duality of a woman determined to succeed in the West, while remaining inextricably linked to her Eastern heritage, whether she admits it or not.
In interviews, Lee has stated that she connected instantly with the script, by writer-director Celine Song; being the daughter of immigrants herself, the material was immediately relatable, while Song noted that the American-educated Lee’s somewhat formal manner of speaking Korean perfectly suited to the character she would eventually play.
As is often the case in life, there’s no real antagonist here. Arthur, whom Nora married to get a Green Card after deciding to sever ties with Hae Sung, is kind and understanding, to the point of encouraging Nora to see her old friend. When the connection that Nora and Hae Sung rears its head in increasingly obvious ways, it’s impossible not to feel for Arthur when even we, the audience, want the Koreans to end up together. The scenario that inspired Song to write Past Lives is actually dramatized in the film, with an offscreen couple debating if Arthur was Nora’s friend, her lover, or something else entirely.
In the case of Teo Yoo’s portrayal of Hae Sung, the character’s determination to pursue his childhood friend’s affections is endearing, in a lovelorn puppy sort of way. He’s clearly smitten with her, and when he says he’s on his way to New York for a vacation, we know that it’s not going to be for the sightseeing. In a lesser film, his journey would be accompanied by whimsical music, fish-out-of-water shenanigans upon arriving in America, and other genre tropes.
In the case of Past Lives, we’re presented with a man who either never forgot the happiness he felt by Nora’s side, and has spent his entire life trying to recapture that joy. It’s relatable, it’s human, and Teo Yoo knocks it out of the park, looking for all the world like a little boy on a first date as he waits for Nora to arrive.
When Hae Sung and Nora finally meet after 24 years apart, their reunion is presented in the easy companionship of old friends. As the two catch up and take in the sites, their sequences are increasingly rendered in the intoxicating hues of unrequited yearning. To Song’s credit, her screenplay doesn’t descend into melodrama or misplaced sentimentality; all of the emotion is conveyed by the actors, making it genuinely difficult for us to not get swept in and ask, “What if?”
Fate, karma, and destiny have been used in any number of romantic stories as validations for two people coming together. Here, the Korean equivalent, “in-yun”, the notion of lovers being people who’ve repeatedly met in previous incarnations, is mentioned by Nora as something that Koreans just use to seduce people.
The character’s irreverence for her heritage speaks volumes to the degree that her “Westernization” serves as a security blanket against the remnants of her past. The film shows us the consequences of letting that past resurface, and Lee excels at portraying her character’s emotional turmoil.
Past Lives’ tale of star-crossed lovers is raw in a way that is as honest as it is devastating. Easily one of the year’s best, and highly recommended.
Past Lives opens in Philippine cinemas on August 30.
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