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Past Lives

Released 2023. Director: Celine Song

GROWING UP IN SEOUL, NA YOUNG AND HAE SUNG were childhood sweethearts. The pair of 12-year-olds walked home together from school each day and would held hands when they sat next to each other. Then Na Young’s family migrated to Canada and the pair never saw each other again.

Twelve years later, Na Young, who now goes by the name Nora, is making a new life for herself as a playwright in New York. She looks up Hae Sung online on a whim and the two quickly rekindle their friendship, their daily video chats reigniting their mutual attraction until Nora feels the growing intensity of a long-distance relationship is a distraction to her career. The pair break up and another 12 years pass before they finally see each other again, this time face to face.

Past Lives is a discerning look on a well-worn premise, a story about “the one that got away”. It’s a love story about missed opportunities, choices and decisions. When they were kids, choices were made for them when Nora’s family left to pursue greener pastures. When they become adults, Nora reaches out and Hae Sung reciprocates. They also decide to part. Then Hae Sung comes looking for Nora, even though he knows she’s married. It’s not a question of right or wrong decisions, but choices people make and the paths they take us.

Would Nora have given up on their growing fondness to prioritise her career if Hae Sung had also been in New York? Would either of them have altered their career path for love? Why has Hae Sung come to New York after all these years? Is it to confirm to himself his feelings are real?

As an outsider looking in, it feels sad and sweet Nora and Hae Sung understand deeply the flame they share hasn’t been put out by distance and the passing of time. But what about Arthur, Nora’s husband who quietly sits through his wife’s reunion with her childhood sweetheart?

Nora and Arthur, a writer, first met at an artists’ residency in Montauk. As Nora points out to Hae Sung, it’s the same place where the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is set. If you haven’t seen it before, the movie is about a heartbroken man having his memory of a failed relationship erased. Celine Song, who wrote and directed Past Lives, is likening Nora’s time with Arthur to an act of forgetting Hae Sung. The truth is Nora has never, could never, forget Hae Sung.

Nora also explains the concept of in-yun to Arthur. To put it simply, in-yun refers to the connections between people. Every interaction has a rippling effect from the past to the future, from something as innocuous as brushing past someone on the street. Nora and Hae Sung, Nora and Arthur, even Hae Sung and Arthur, who they are in relation to each other is a result of the layers of in-yun between them, the history of their connections in past lives. By invoking the concept of in-yun, the movie casts the relationships in a grander, cosmic perspective as if their souls are entwined. Their romance is much more than timing, circumstances, geography and happenstance but a consequence of “providence” and “fate”, words Nora uses to describe what the Koreans believe.

Writing and directing a movie for only the first time, Celine Song has crafted this semi-autobiographical story in a light and perceptive manner to a remarkable effect. Neither melancholic nor sentimental, Past Lives is mellow and mature, rich in its understanding of needs, wants, desires, dreams, where life takes you, where you want to be, who you choose to be and who you take with you on your journey.

The chemistry between Hae Sung and Nora recalls Jessie and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunset, in its depiction of soul mates reconnecting after years apart.

In a way, what Nora and Hae Sung share is a near-romance, like a bud frozen before it had a chance to truly bloom. If you feel your heart breaks a little when they part for the last time, it’s because Greta Lee and Teo Yoo bring to life the nostalgic wistfulness and romantic naivety between two old friends that makes Nora and Hae Sung realistic and relatable.

If you’ve ever had someone special who went in a different direction, Past Lives will burrow into your memory. If you’ve never experienced it, it shows what it’s like to let go of something precious that you never really had. Past Lives is one of the best movies of 2023.

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1 commentaire

27 nov. 2023

Yes, seen this and thoroughly enjoyed it!

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