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REVIEW: Why ‘Past Lives’ demands to be seen in theaters

Jason Tan Liwag

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REVIEW: Why ‘Past Lives’ demands to be seen in theaters


Jon Pack

Celine Song’s ‘Past Lives’ is a tender and decimating tale about immigration, identity, and ambition packaged in the familiar pains of a love triangle

Spoilers ahead.

“Who do you think they are to each other?”

The question arrives even before we see an image on the screen. Suddenly, we’re at a bar in the East Village of New York City, looking at three strangers — a Korean man, a Korean woman, and a Jewish man — in the middle of a 4 am conversation. Based on body language and biases, disembodied voices make guesses on the nature of their relationship. Are the trio just friends? Co-workers? Lovers? Siblings? Every permutation fails to lead to a logical conclusion. As they give up, the camera pushes in closer to the woman, cutting the men away from the frame. In the silence, her eyes find us, her mouth curving up into a slight smile. By returning her gaze, we jump back and forth across time.

The pull of this first scene in Past Lives, Celine Song’s debut feature, is the promise of unveiling the mystery of this entanglement; one it carries throughout the film. As time jumps across 24 years, we get to know Nora Moon (Greta Lee) —  a playwright based in New York whose marriage to Arthur (John Magaro) is disrupted by the arrival of her childhood friend from Seoul Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) who is on vacation.

Nora’s relationship with Arthur is easily categorizable and mundane. She brings coffee to his book signings. They talk about chicken wings while cuddling in bed in their small apartment in the East Village. But her relationship with Hae Sung is less defined. They went on a date arranged by their mothers 24 years earlier. They held hands in the car as she slept before she left for Canada. They found each other 12 years later by accident. They spoke to each other endlessly through Skype. Would you call that dating? The mystery of this relationship — both the reasons for its existence and its continued vagueness — spans nearly a quarter-century, exists despite cultural, temporal, and linguistic barriers, and becomes the underlying question of every subsequent interaction.

Many have connected Past Lives to Linklater’s Before trilogy and even Michel Gondrey’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which Nora recommends to Hae Sung within the film. Shared themes of serendipity, missed opportunities, and “what ifs” thread all three — with destiny becoming both the force that brings them together and tears them apart. The connections between the trio in Past Lives are defined by their in-yeon (인연) — the accumulated connections between people across all their past lives, approximated only in English by the word “providence.” But while Past Lives is marketed as a romance filled with characteristic A24 yearning, the film is more potent when viewed as a coming-of-age story about the invisible tolls of displacement and immigration. In this regard, Song’s work finds kinship with a film it seemingly references towards its conclusion: Peter Chan’s 1996 romantic dramedy Comrades: Almost A Love Story.

A decade-spanning romance following two Chinese mainlanders migrating to Hong Kong, Comrades: Almost A Love Story is simultaneously an examination of the immigrant experience while also demonstrating how loneliness and romance can blossom from the same concrete. Unlike the middle-class fantasia that Past Lives presents, where two writers live out their ambitions in New York City, Comrades: Almost A Love Story is situated, at least at first, squarely within the realm of the working class, the protagonists bound together by their shared struggle against capitalism, their ambitions of a better life and their desires to stay together thwarted again and again by material need and familial obligations.

In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, Nora confronts the ways her marriage is shaped not just by desire, but also by need and convenience. From moving in together to save rent in the East Village to marrying early to get Nora a green card, Arthur shares how they are a product of forces beyond their control. While Nora reminds him that love has moved them into their current circumstances, she cannot deny how their relationship makes her world smaller, more distinctly American. Raymond Ang of GQ crucially writes about how Nora’s desired accolades clue us in on her increasingly American aspirations — her dreams of a Nobel Prize in childhood abandoned for a Pulitzer during her MFA and later exchanged for a Tony in adulthood.

Nora and Arthur are aware, in the ways writers often annoyingly are, of how their personal lives teeter dangerously close to the tropes of cliched romantic dramas and stereotypes attached to racial politics, subtly shifting their behavior to avoid the traps that would make them villains in their own stories. Hae Sung is similarly weighed down by expectations placed upon Korean men of providing, of extraordinariness prior to marriage, which keeps him unhappy. While such awareness provides the narrative with much-needed levity, these clue us into how myths handed down to us affect our everyday lives. Is there a way where everybody wins?

It seems the answer is no. Through this lens, the aseptic nature of the interactions between Nora and Hae Sung, the awkwardness with which they stand in front of each other and hesitate to touch each other, emerges from a shared desire to do right,  opting to respect the in-yeon (인연) that keeps them separate in this lifetime. Even Arthur is bound by this silent contract.

“I’m really glad you came here. It was the right thing to do,” he says to Hae Sung when they are alone together for the first time, their pained expressions betraying the hurt they attempt to keep private.

Much like in Song’s personal life, the cost of Nora’s immigration bleeds into nearly every facet of life without her even knowing, even becoming the subject of her playwriting.

“Some crossings cost more than others,” says an actress during a reading of one of Nora’s plays, echoing what her mother says at the beginning of the film. “Some crossings you pay for your whole life.” Time makes it seem as if the price is negligible but, in truth, the costs only accumulate in interest.

Alison Willmore’s scathing review for Vulture criticizes Past Lives for having little interest in the interiority of its characters. But Song merely uses romance as a Trojan horse for deeper contemplation on the ways Nora’s fractured identity escapes her recognition. You see it in the names Hae Sung and Arthur use to refer to her, with Hae Sung calling her Na Young — her name prior to her assimilation into the West, indicating he still views her as the crybaby from their teenage years. These different versions of Nora have been spatially and temporally separated, two identities suspended in Korea and in New York, respectively – held up on a pedestal by the respective men.

In the absence of a physical location to share, language becomes a third space for connection and separation.

“You dream in a language I can’t understand,” says Arthur two-thirds into the film, articulating a worry that there are spaces within Nora that will forever be inaccessible to him. But this sentiment also applies to Hae Sung, to whom Nora’s ambitions of literary stardom have always been foreign. Neither of the two men truly understands the tug-of-war inside Nora simply because they have never been an immigrant in the same way. But to love the ones who matter to us means to accept that there are doors with which we will never have keys, which will forever remain closed. Only in the final 20 minutes do these disparate versions of Nora collapse into one, as she attempts to translate between her husband and her childhood sweetheart not only linguistically but also contextually, forcing her to connect her past to her present.

So when the Uber arrives and takes Hae Sung away, he is traveling not only back to Seoul but into Nora’s past forever — the shot framed like the car ride home after their first date when they were kids; their last happy memory before the two understand what it is like to leave and to be left. Nora, as always, moves in the other direction, towards her future, returning to the life that she and her parents have chosen and worked hard for.

“When I first immigrated, I used to cry a lot,” says Nora on a Skype call with Hae Sung earlier in the film. “But then I realized nobody cared.”

When she sees Arthur waiting for her on the stairs outside their apartment, the dam breaks. She allows herself to mourn Na Young by becoming her 12-year-old self again. She cries for the first time in front of him. He, in turn, takes on the mantle Hae Sung used to fill. It is a scene so quietly decimating, so simple and palpable in its rendering of an unrecoverable loss, that one can only sit back and let the tears run. –

Celine Song’s ‘Past Lives’ was viewed during a special advanced screening at Cinema ‘76 arranged by TBA Studios. It is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.