' ' Cinema Romantico: Past Lives

Monday, July 31, 2023

Past Lives

The title of Celine Song’s “Past Lives” alludes to Inyun, a Korean concept derived from Buddhism suggesting a kind of destined connection between two people created from countless meetings in previous existences. It’s a fanciful notion that put me in mind of sliding door moments, seemingly inconsequential everyday occurrences that affect our most important relationships, brought to life in the 1998-starring Gwyneth Paltrow movie using the term for its title that follows her character through alternate lives depending on one random choice. That was a romantic comedy, however, and “Past Lives” is very much a philosophical yet discerning romantic drama that looks its current lives right in the eye.

“Past Lives” takes place over the course of 24 years and begins in Seoul, South Korea where preteen Na Young and Hae Sung are virtually inseparable childhood sweethearts, until Na Young’s mother reveals they are emigrating to Canada, leaving Hae Sung sullen and incommunicative. When the two friends stand for a brief moment at a literal fork in the road walking back from school, one way sending him home, the other sending her home, it could be its own sliding doors moment. The prologue, however, in which we see adult Na Young and Hang Sue sitting at a bar with a white man as we hear a pair of disembodied voices speculating on who this trio is and how it fits together cautions us against rushed judgements about the kind of film we are watching.

The movie flashes ahead 12 years in which Hae Sung, now played by Teo Yoo, and Na Young, going by Nora, and now played by Greta Lee, are students, he still in Seoul and her in Toronto. They reconnect via social media and skype and have conversations to the absence of most everything else. Song shrewdly structures this sequence to pull us into its rhythm as much as the characters, falling for them on the screen as much as they are falling for each on their screens, until Nora recognizes this relationship across time and space is pulling her away from the rest of her life and breaks it off. When she shuts her laptop, it is profound moment suggesting her re-entry to the physical world as much as goodbye. Her subsequent marriage to American playwright Arthur (John Magaro), a character deftly written and played not simply to be in the way, is nearly as abrupt as cutting communication off with Hae Sung, if also evocative of how life so often gets caught in the current and just rushes ahead. Another 12 years, in fact, when Hae Sung comes to America under the guise of being a tourist but really to see Nora.

In a way, “Past Lives” suggests Richard Linklater’s “Before” Trilogy condensed into a single movie. Yet, where the latter drilled down into a hyper-specific present for each movie, the former’s present is always inextricable from what has preceded it. Indeed, if the character details of Hae Sung feel less lived in, it’s partially because he can’t commit to the future because he can’t let go of his memories. Teo brings this to life with an almost bashful self-consciousness that plays perfectly off Lee’s self-assurance as a character more settled in herself and her life. Then again, Hae Sung becomes representative of the life Nora could have led and still subconsciously dreams of, as Arthur hints at by revealing her tendency to dream in Korean. 

That’s a fantastic line, though one of the occasional symptoms of Song’s playwrighting background, a preference for characters to make statements rather than evincing them onscreen. At other points, though, Song’s visual sense is acute, such as an early scene of Hae Sung during his South Korean military service, sitting down for a meal off a tin tray in the middle of nowhere, seen in long shot amid dozens of other men. If later he tells Nora it was during military service that she began entering his thoughts, here you see it, all that space around him ineffably taken up by her, whereas when Nora attends a rural writer’s retreat, the vast landscape in front of her when she stands on the porch is suddenly filled by the unexpected presence of Arthur, evoking just the opposite.

It is these in-between spaces where “Past Lives” is most sublime, especially in the third section as Nora and Hae Sung wander New York, their shared silences and stolen glances awkward or electric or maybe just both. That duality speaks to the overriding tension between present and past, between what is real and only remembered, and how Song is impressively content to leave it unresolved. “Past Lives” builds to what is ostensibly a Will They or Won’t They moment only to transcend the trope by having it essentially collapse in on itself instead as Nora falls into sobs, the emotional dam of a life lived finally breaking, bringing to mind not a Korean nor Buddhist philosopher but an American one, James McMurtry, singing “the thoughts come too fast and too many to keep count, best just to let ‘em on through.”

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