Past Lives (2023)

As the Writer’s Guild of America enters a strike in L.A., Motion State stands in solidarity with writers and in support of their proposals for fair wages, rights and benefits for writers’ rooms, restrictions on AI involvement in screenwriting, and more. As if to underscore the importance of the writer, Closing Night at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston saw the area premiere of Celine Song’s beautifully-written feature debut Past Lives. Song, a WGA member, spoke explicitly in “fierce support” of the strike prior to the screening. But the powerful writing of Past Lives made that point itself, actually, and it’s one of the most surefooted film debuts so far this year.

Na Young is twelve years old when her family immigrates to Canada from Seoul, and her bond with her best friend Hae Sung is effectively broken by the 6,000-mile remove. They connect via Skype years later, after a twenty-something Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) seeks her out following his mandatory military service. But Na Young is now Nora (Greta Lee), living on her own in New York City, and their reconnection is short-lived. Another twelve years pass before the pair are reunited again, but they’re adults now. Nora is married to Arthur (John Magaro), Hae Sung is an engineer, and it’s possible that they’re entirely different people than the pair of young friends who knew each other in Seoul a lifetime ago.

Truncating the aching beauty of something like Past Lives into a one-paragraph synopsis is always unsatisfactory, so it’s worth clarifying that the adulthood depicted in the film is not a question of age. When they’re in their twenties, Nora living on her own and Hae Sung in the midst of his military service, most would consider them “adults”. But the subtleties of their reconnection over Skype tell a different story, in part through the simplistic Korean that Nora uses. She’s “rusty” from being away from Seoul for so long, and so from Hae Sung’s perspective he’s essentially still talking to the twelve-year-old girl he used to know. That version of her, that past life, is still intact, which on the surface strikes both characters as a beautiful thing (“I recognize you!” Hae Sung exclaims in surprise). But despite the other parts of their lives signaling adulthood, the relationship between the two never progresses past childhood.

Before they leave Korea, Nora’s mother acknowledges that, yes, something will be lost with this change — but something will also be gained. So if Past Lives is about people trying to be adults, then finally moving past that childhood relationship might be one of the most crucial gains for both Nora and Hae Sung. This is not the same as “getting over each other”, not quite a simple matter of finding “closure”; that might be what the pair thought they were striving for when they parted ways in their twenties, but as adults there’s something greater to be sought.

Celine Song at the Coolidge Corner Theater following the IFFBoston screening of Past Lives.

After the IFFBoston crowd dried their eyes, Celine Song took the stage to talk about her personal journey with Past Lives, the role technology plays in the film, working with the actors to find genuine emotion, and more. Her thoughts on the depiction of love in the film cemented the themes of adulthood that were already apparent, including the love that Nora has with her husband Arthur. Nora is loved in two ways by two very different men — articulated most clearly during a crucial scene at a New York bar — but neither love is superior or inferior to the other. There are no bad guys in Past Lives. For Arthur, who shares an intellectual bond with Nora as a fellow writer, love is often in the small, gentle gestures: learning basic Korean, cuddling in bed, pouring a glass of water for her as he gets one for himself.

Contrast that with Hae Sung’s far more grandiose display of love, which literally takes him halfway across the world in search of Nora. Importantly, though, this gesture is not undertaken because Hae Sung expects anything in return. Song noted that sometimes she thought of Past Lives as a film about “three goodbyes: two bad and one good”. When they were twelve, the pair perhaps didn’t comprehend that magnitude of their parting; in their twenties, they’re still unable to say goodbye to each other in a way that really sticks. And so Hae Sung’s eventual actions are incredibly moving in this way, knowing that he’ll return to Seoul alone, knowing that seeing Nora with her loving husband will cause him pain, but understanding also that the opportunity to truly say goodbye to each other might permit both of them to grow past their childhood selves.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind receives explicit mention in the context of Past Lives, and that really is a perfect cinematic parallel for a story about growing up, growing beyond your former self, then looking back at that growth and pondering those saddest words of tongue or pen: what might have been. The concept of In-Yun — a Korean notion tied to fate — brought to mind Doctor Zhivago, when Yuri and Lara brush up against each other on the tram as a spark ignites overhead. But Past Lives is the type of film so firmly grounded in reality that allusions to other art only take us so far. Celine Song’s film is a stunning debut that will likely remain a contender for the year’s best, and when it comes back around in a wider release I’ll be first in line to see it again.


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