Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical debut feature Past Lives is a profound reflection on loss and love. By Michelle Wang.

Past Lives

Three people in smart-casual dress walk down a New York street.
Greta Lee, John Magaro and Teo Yoo in a scene from Celine Song’s Past Lives.
Credit: A24

In-yun is a Korean Buddhist philosophy that teaches that any encounter between two people at any time is fate. Every interaction – whether you brush against someone in the street or marry them – occurs because you’ve met before in a past life, each interaction generating layer upon layer of in-yun

This version of destiny is an anchoring theme throughout playwright Celine Song’s debut feature film, Past Lives. In the opening scene, three people sit together at a bar, conversing inaudibly. We hear a voiceover from two others sitting across from them, trying to guess what the audience is already wondering – who are these people to each other? What brings them together tonight?

Song confidently picks up the well-worn idea of fated love and crafts an irresistible story about longing, hardened by the resilience wrought by migration from one culture to another. Nora (Greta Lee of Russian Doll) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo of Decision to Leave) – who both give astounding performances – are childhood friends separated by Nora’s emigration from South Korea. A familiar romantic collage documents their reconnection many years later: Nora in New York City, perched in front of her laptop, successfully finds Hae Sung on Facebook and as they message, they discover they’ve both been thinking of each other. The increasing frequency of the Skype ringtone signals how their relationship deepens into compelling desire. 

Their pixelated video calls convey the punishing price of a long-distance relationship. In the vein of classics such as Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, Past Lives emphasises the frustration and futility of the many forms of technology – letters, email, social media – that people have devised to stay in touch, always a meagre substitute for being in the same room at the same time. Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship stagnates as perennial penpals, the expression of their true feelings repressed behind screens.

Enter Nora’s American husband, Arthur, played by John Magaro (First Cow, The Big Short). There are no loose ends to this very tangible relationship. After meeting and falling in love at an artist residency, they marry young to help Nora secure a green card and live together in New York City. 

Though the film is fictional, it is underpinned by autobiographical elements that hold many mirrors up to the experiences of Asian emigrants. In interviews, Song has described the film as an adaptation of her life. Like Nora, Song migrated to Canada from South Korea as a 12-year-old and now lives in New York City as a writer with a Jewish-American writer husband, Justin Kuritzkes, who also happens to have written a play called Asshole, a parallel to Arthur’s Boner. The story is further coloured by the depths Lee and Yoo bring to their characters, from their personal experiences as part of the Korean diaspora.

Nora’s relationships with Hae Sung and Arthur denote her two worlds: her roots in South Korea and her chosen life in the United States. Nora and Arthur’s relationship is a tale of modern love, 20-somethings whose separate lives coalesce as they grow into adulthood together – moving in, getting married and supporting each other’s careers. As couples do, they talk and fight and talk and fight – but they always make up.

Their marriage is disrupted when Hae Sung finally visits Nora in New York City. In a role that could be easily subsumed by Nora and Hae Sung’s overwhelming connection, Arthur adds a necessary levity as the often comically pained and self-aware husband who is trying to remain open-minded. In the middle of the night, Arthur confides to Nora that he listens to her sleep-talking in Korean and this troubles him at times – it is some place inside of her that he can never access. Is he what she really wants?

In Nora’s other world, Hae Sung is a relic of her Korean childhood. Even online they share a remarkable chemistry, which becomes impossible to tear your eyes away from when they finally meet in person. Their deep connection forces Nora to reckon with her life in South Korea and her new life abroad. Hae Sung is the only person who still calls her by her Korean name. Even her mother calls her Nora. Everything Hae Sung represents comes from a past life, not the one she is living now.

While Nora and Arthur share a relationship built on words – in their parallel careers, discussions, arguments and light-hearted banter – Nora and Hae Sung barely speak when they reunite. They repeatedly say “wa”, the common Korean exclamation for “wow”, as they revel in meeting again online and then in person. Their connection is rooted in shared history, and grows despite their many cultural differences – in his views on marriage, relationships and career, Hae Sung seems “so Korean” and conservative to Nora.

The opening scene replays at the end in a surreptitious glimpse of in-yun – one that actually happened to Song and inspired the film – that’s equally painful and hilarious. When the three meet in a bar, Nora translates with reducing frequency between her American husband and her childhood sweetheart. Arthur repeatedly falls out of frame as the camera homes in on Nora and Hae Sung’s intense Korean conversation. Arthur is shown in glimpses off to the side and his troubled face says it all. The powerful mise en scène of the three sitting along a bar and the camera’s shifting focus effectively combines Song’s theatrical eye with the emotional intimacy of the camera.

Nora’s current and past lives unravel in a single mesmerising dolly shot. We follow Nora as she walks into the past, lingering intensely as she farewells Hae Sung, and then returns to her life now with Arthur, who is waiting for her on their stoop. It is the finest example of the film’s skilful and heartbreaking clarity.

Ultimately, Past Lives is not about chance, fate nor long-lost love. As the film glides between the comic and profound, the literal and abstract, it pays homage to the many lives Nora has lived as an immigrant child and the difficult choices she has had to make along the way. They are summarised by her mother: “If you leave something behind, you gain something too.”

A pink-hued sunrise or sunset marks each goodbye between Nora and Hae Sung, simultaneously heralding a new day, a new life. Perhaps in-yun, in its endless reincarnations, is the guiding philosophy that allows us to acknowledge and find peace with all the unresolved baggage of our choices. 

Past Lives is playing in Australian cinemas.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Past Lives".

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