Pictured: Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, left) rides the subway with his childhood sweetheart, Nora (Greta Lee, right) in a scene from the romantic drama, 'Past Lives', written and directed by Celine Song. Photograph: Jon Pack/AP. Still courtesy of Sundance Institute/A24 Films (US), Studio Canal (UK)
What does it mean when you say to your partner, ‘we’re meant to be together’? This sentiment is expressed sometimes in repose, sometimes in the waning of a lost argument, a pitiful despatch of the final life raft. I have my own thoughts on the subject. The more romantic will incline towards the film, Past Lives, written and directed by Celine Song, which explores to some extent whether relationships are destined to persist. Song’s film features Greta Lee as Nora Moon (born Na Young), a playwright who reconnects with the Korean boy, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) who she last saw in person twenty-four years ago.
Nora didn’t ‘leave’ Hae Sung. She was separated from him by her parents who relocated to Toronto; her father is a film director. But you know kids – especially precocious ones. They’ll claim the decisions made by others as their own. Koreans, in line with many nationalities, are known for formality and repressed emotions, the latter released with the lethality of steam from a broken pipe. They know what it is to play it cool, with emphasis on the pretence.
Past Lives begins with a conversation about the central characters as observed by an unseen couple. Sitting next to Nora and Hae Sung is the author, Arthur Zaturansky (John Magaro). I imagine Song’s mentoring conversations. ‘What are you going to call your author?’ ‘Arthur.’ ‘No, author.’ ‘Arthur is a good name.’
‘Who do you imagine they are?’ one observer asks. They run through the permutations. Brother, sister, sister’s wife. Husband, wife, tour guide. Tour guide? At four in the morning? During the conversation, the camera moves towards Nora, until she looks directly into it. The unseen couple, we imagine, settle their bill rapidly.
Cut to twenty-four years earlier. Twelve-year-old Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) is walking classmate Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) home from school. Na Young is distraught. ‘Why are you crying?’ he asks. ‘Is it because you came second in the test, and I came first?’ Na Young doesn’t want to come second to anyone. She wants to win - win. (No apologies for the Breakfast Club reference.) At home, she and her sister want to swap their new names. Father, who has been surprised while he is having a cigarette – ‘stay over there, children,’ he warns them, cognisant of the health risks of tobacco but still unable to help himself (that’s a case study right there) has a suggestion. ‘Nora – from Leonora’. Na Young is sold. Na Young’s mother has another idea. ‘Is there a boy at school that you like?’ Na Young nods. ‘How about a date?’
You shouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn that dating twelve-year-old Korean style involves parental supervision. Hae Sung and Na Young go to a park that has a tall mechanical statue of a man whose mouth opens and closes. The two children play peek-a-boo (or the worst game of hide and seek ever) within a wall that has the features of a face cut into it. (Sometimes, watching a movie, you want to know the name of the location; I would want my children to play there as well – safer than Amsterdam.) Na Young’s mother explains that the family is migrating. ‘I want to make good memories of Korea [for Na Young],’ she adds. An act of cruelty if you ask me.
There is one final walk home from school in near silence. Na Young, who had expressed her desire to win the Nobel Prize – ‘you can’t win the Nobel Prize in Korea,’ she explains – stands three steps above Hae Sung and says plaintively, ‘bye’. Hae Sung nods. Song might have cut to Hae Sung’s face as he hears his friend say goodbye, but her camera placement is restrained, as if a close-up would be intrusive. This choice is typical of her direction, as if wanting to keep the audience guessing; the less the camera does, the more the audience projects. To quote Song’s own line, her direction is very Korean.
On the plane, Na Young and her sister practice their limited English before the family present their passports at Toronto Pearson Airport, the first of two scenes in front of a customs official. The formality of conversations with an official is also, it seems to me, very Korean.
A caption: ‘twelve years pass’. Nora is now a twenty-four-year-old aspiring writer in New York City. Hae Sung, on the other hand, is on his military service, one of many soldiers in green uniform on an exercise and settling down in a makeshift trench for some grub. The scene might have been a budget stretcher, but Song wants to emphasise Hae Sung’s conformity. We see him out with some friends. One of them is crying, having broken up with a girl. The convention is that the young men should get very drunk together. Hae Sung has posted on the Facebook page for Nora’s father’s latest film that he is looking for Na Young. Nora responds. The pair engage in a series of video calls, scarcely believing that they are back in touch. Nora explains that she now wants to win the Pulitzer Prize - a reduction in ambition. Both are rigidly staying put. Whatever they feel about each other, Nora has no intention of returning to Korea. Hae Sung has no desire to emigrate. He wants to learn Chinese (‘for my job’, he explains). At a certain point, Nora ends their chats.
Lest Act Two be a complete anti-climax, Nora accepts an artists’ residency. There she meets Arthur, who arrives later than she did and has ‘the worst room’. (Well, Nora wants to be first in everything.) There is instant attraction, at least on Nora’s side. Later, Arthur will wonder whether he is Nora’s ‘immigrant dream’.
Another caption: ‘twelve years pass’. Arthur and Nora present themselves to customs officials, having just returned from Toronto to visit Nora’s parents. They are married. Occupation: ‘we’re writers.’ You can account for a lot of time with scenes in front of customs officials, but just think of how they could bare their hearts whilst submitting a tax return.
Arthur is now a published author. Nora has a play in rehearsal, one that reflects her migrant experience. Hae Sung is visiting New York City. He is in a relationship, but it is on pause. Reuniting with Nora, he explains that he is an only child. His girlfriend has to find out whether she can marry someone richer than he is, more successful. Hae Sung describes himself as ordinary, adding ‘the conditions [for marriage] are not met’. At one point, Nora and Hae Sung stand in front of a carousel, a symbol of love’s merry go round, or emotional agnosticism. However, they don’t climb aboard it. They are not trying to relive their childhood in that way.
Which brings finally to the question of providence, or rather In-Yun, the concept that individuals are doomed to repeat the relationship they had in their (presumed) past lives (hence the film’s title). Just as the unseen couple speculate about the relationship between Arthur, Hae Sung and Nora, so Hae Sung wonders what he was once to Nora in their previous incarnations. Maybe he was a courtier to her queen and their relationship was forbidden. The one thing you can say about past lives is that you always imagine that your life was grander and more dramatic than it is now. That is part of the fun.
On their second day together, Nora and Hae Sung visit the Statue of Liberty. Later, Arthur will say, ‘I have never been’. If you enjoy liberty, you have no desire to visit a monument to it. We see behind Hae Sung, a tourist posing for a photograph. Memorialising a trip somehow makes it banal; there is something to said for a photograph literally stealing life.
Arthur finally meets Hae Sung. Arthur greets him in Korean – Nora confesses that she visited Korea, but Hae Sung was away. Hae Sung responds in English. What would Hae Sung like to eat. ‘Pasta,’ he replies enthusiastically.
Song resolves the drama beautifully. To Hae Sung, Nora is the woman who leaves. To Nora (from Hae Sung’s point of view), Arthur is the man who stays. Hae Sung wishes he didn’t like Arthur so much. (Maybe he should read Arthur’s novel.) The near final scene involves an Uber and a brief but telling wait, Hae Sung standing with his pull-along suitcase.
In a very literal sense, not much happens in Past Lives. Yet it resonates. From a western perspective, it is about a doomed relationship about a woman who has outgrown the man who remained obsessed with her for twenty-four years based on them hanging out together as children. Hae Sung’s justification is that Na Young’s personality was formed by the age of twelve. Nora remains unknown to us. Her ambition to be a writer isn’t based on anything but her sense of competition. Her characteristic is an embarrassment about liking someone who became a typical Korean; the inference is that she finds Hae Sung dull. Just because someone has feelings for you and you have a shared history, it doesn’t mean you have to fall for them. Hae Sung didn’t pass Nora’s bar. Hae Sung was there when Na Young needed him - but so what? Past Lives plays like a romance, but it is as unromantic a film as you could ever hope to watch. Who needs flowers when you end up in the East Village?
Reviewed at Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Sunday 26 February 2023, 09:30am; also Sundance London, Monday 3 July 2023, Picturehouse Central Screen Three, 15:30 screening