A list of what-ifs. We all have them. We all have one that tops the list too. Celine Song’s debut feature, and the best film of 2023 so far, explores this thorny part of life. Past Lives revolves around the Korean concept of inyeon, relating to destiny, especially between two people. Nora and Hae Sung are childhood friends growing up together in Seoul until Nora’s family decides to immigrate to Canada. The two 12-year olds say goodbye and Nora is gone from Hae Sung’s life so suddenly that he never forgets it.
Twelve years later, with Nora now a playwright in New York City and Hae Sung still studying in Seoul, they reconnect and have a distant, digital relationship of sorts through Skype and texts. That is until it’s broken off once again, Nora’s choice this time. She wants to commit to her life in New York rather than think about going back to Seoul to see Hae Sung. Another dozen years and Nora is married to another writer and living with him in New York. Hae Sung is an engineer living an “ordinary” life in Seoul. They finally reconnect in person. Hae Sung gives a valiant effort in trying to convince Nora he didn’t come all the way to New York just for her. But Nora knows. Soon Hae Sung meets Nora’s husband, who is uncomfortable with being the potential villain in this “storybook” love story. He loves Nora though and is quite understanding (which is one of a few major flaws in this movie - everyone is basically perfect and there’s apparently nothing hard about immigrating to America and becoming a writer, nor are there any erotic sparks that would’ve added to the tension, the viewer has to ignore these things I guess), especially since Nora and Hae Sung’s “love story” is anything but the grand romances and rom-coms of Hollywood. They both know this too. To them, their lives are not necessarily stuck, it’s just what happened instead.
Song sprinkles throughout the film evocative pillow shots of cityscapes (NYC and Seoul) and the sounds emanating from them. This helps us to understand the inyeon of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship - connected in their similarities and familiarity, disconnected by distance and temporality. Nora and her American husband Arthur meet at an artist’s residency in the country. Nora and Hae Sung grow up together in a city and lose each other in a city. Hae Sung leaves the urban environment once for military service (required for Korean men for 18-30 months) and it’s there Nora is cemented in his mind. Cities help us to live different lives or dream about different lives. Get away from our upbringing and past selves. They help us to discover other parts of ourselves. In our youth they help us to find/meet others. Cities have people, therefore more vitality. More love.
As Nora and Hae Sung walk and talk, blissful couples walk in parks under bridges and kiss by the carousel (the one near the Brooklyn Bridge that I sat by once during the pandemic, dark and empty, very few people around me). It hurts so good to think about what could’ve been.
Past Lives had me thinking about my own move as a kid (to a different state), though not even close to Nora’s immigrating experience, it was instrumental in shaping my current identity. I have plenty of “what ifs” but I prefer what I’ve become and Celine Song’s film is quite refreshing in its story about a woman choosing both the life that happened and the one she chose long ago. She never goes back. Sure, she flirts with returning, but in the end she’s certain that some lives need to stay in the past.
I often think about how existential one gets in their 20s and if that will happen again when I’m much older. It’s terrifying to consider when I will no longer be thinking about how both my life is going to be and how it has turned out so far. When does it switch to only the latter, and the weight of time in the “so far” gets lighter and lighter? Does the past ever get less haunting and the future less daunting? Ultimately, as the past expands and the future closes in, choices have to be made. This one life we have in the moment determines, and is always pitted against, hundreds of thousands of past and future lives. Somehow, despite this grueling competition, we carry on. All you can do is give the past your tears, lay your head on the shoulder of the now, and trust the future’s promises, whatever they may be.