Past Lives is the screenwriting/directorial debut of Celine Song, a Korean immigrant who found success as a playwright here in the States. Oh, and her father is a filmmaker — namely Song Neung-han, who’s built a respectable career for himself in South Korea.
Given the numerous superficial similarities between Song and the protagonist of her film, I had to look it up and confirm that the film is indeed semi-autobiographical in nature. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it from the top, shall we?
This is the story of Na Young and Hae Sung, respectively played as children by Moon Seung-ah and Leem Seung-min, then as adults by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. The two start out as mutual childhood crushes growing up in South Korea until Na and her family emigrate to Canada.
Cut to twelve years later. Na has changed her name to Nora Moon and found her way to New York to work as a playwright. Hae Sung is still in Korea, living with his parents, bouncing between girlfriends, going to school for engineering. The two of them reconnect over social media and strike up a kind of long-distance relationship. Alas, video chatting can only go so far (especially with 2010 technology), the time difference is a huge hassle, and neither one of them can fly over because of Nora’s residency and Hae Sung’s college classes.
So they call it quits. Until they inevitably reconnect. After another 12 years have passed. And Nora has gotten herself a native New York lover (Arthur, played by John Magaro, who is himself actually married to a Korean woman).
Yes, we’ve got an on-again/off-again will-they/won’t-they romance that goes back and forth over a span of 24 years. Predictably and inevitably, the pacing is fucked. This is a 100-minute movie that starts and stops and stalls so many times, it feels at least three times as long. The film doesn’t really kick into gear until the third act, maybe 70 minutes in.
But oh, what happens when it finally all comes together.
First off, I was lucky enough to know that “hae sung” is Korean for “comet” or “shooting star”. So it’s rather poetic that Hae Sung the character comes around for a brief period of time every twelve years like clockwork. Call me a sappy romantic, but the film leaves open the possibility that these two characters will somehow circle back in another twelve years, meeting and parting in this bittersweet dance for the rest of their lives.
Speaking of Korean words and concepts, the film makes a huge deal out of (apologies in advance, but I’m presently unable to confirm the spelling) “inn-yeong”, a Korean word for a concept rooted in Buddhist reincarnation. The basic idea is that it’s a chance meeting between two people who were always fated to be together because of their connection in a previous life. The closest analogue in Western civilization would be something like “soul mates”, two people who were always fated to be together. This carries obvious implications in a story about a woman caught between her Korean childhood sweetheart and her American life partner.
But personally, I’m more interested in the concept with regard to past lives. For instance, there’s one point later on in which the characters posit that if past lives are really a thing, then this current life is itself a past life. When the next life comes, will Nora and Hae Sung be like and how might they connect?
The question carries even greater heft with recognition that Nora has already gone through at least two lives, with the transition from Na Young to Nora Moon. And Hae Sung might feel like he’s been stuck in a rut for however long, but he’s not who he was 24 years ago either. The two of them were mere children, then they were faces on a screen, then they were physical tangible people. The both of them will assuredly continue to change and grow in the next 12 years — who might they be like in that next life, and how will they connect?
Then we’ve got the immigrant angle. With Hae Sung and Arthur, Nora’s love interests capably represent each of Nora’s two sides, with Arthur as a stand-in for the USA and Hae Sung representing her Korean roots. But what’s genuinely great about this love triangle is that none of the involved parties are the bad guy. This isn’t a story about two men competing for the affections of a woman, this is about a woman symbolically making peace with her status as an immigrant by literally sorting out her feelings for these two men. All three of them want Nora to choose the place that’s best for her, all three of them know this means shutting off half of her identity, and all three of them implicitly acknowledge how painful that’s going to be for everyone involved.
It’s going to be messy, and it will be a lifelong continuous process. But at least the film ends with a clear and firm decision that puts Nora on a path moving forward, and that’s what matters.
I had only known Greta Lee as a comedic actor prior to this (Seriously, if you haven’t seen “Russian Doll” or “What We Do in the Shadows” yet, why haven’t you?), and I was astonished to see her turn in such a dynamic and heart-rending performance so far removed from her typical wheelhouse. Teo Yoo is likewise deeply sympathetic as the male lead, and John Magaro threads so many needles to deliver a sweet and relatable character who would be the one-dimensional villain in any other story. And all three of them — plus the writer/director — bring so much lived-in experience that they effortlessly sell the onscreen action and they share the screen together beautifully.
Past Lives is a slow burn. That first hour is a slog, but that last half-hour is well worth the setup. At its best, the film is a powerful statement about the immigrant experience by way of a poignant and deeply layered romantic drama. Even at its worst, the film is endearing and superbly acted enough to keep the audience engaged.
It won’t be for everyone, but it’s absolutely worth checking out.