‘Past Lives’ movie review: Celine Song’s debut film is uniquely personal and universally poignant

Lilting between Korean and English, Celine Song’s debut feature ‘Past Lives’ brings an understated but wholly affecting rumination on the immigrant experience

June 30, 2023 12:04 pm | Updated 12:12 pm IST

A still from the film ‘Past Lives’

A still from the film ‘Past Lives’

In her debut film, Past Lives, Celine Song trains the camera to often capture stillness. Despite a complete lack of visual motion, she stirs the audience’s emotions ever so slightly in every frame. By the time we reach the end, we have been trained to respond to this tranquillity, to pick up the roaring rush of feelings from nothing but quiet sighs. In that way, Past Lives is possibly one of the most interactive films, where it advances a story in such a fashion that you are encouraged to look for similar tales from your own life.

Lilting between Korean and English, the two languages stretched across time and space, Song starts her film 24 years before the current timeline, in South Korea. A story of childhood sweethearts there, Na Young and Hae Sung, is rudely interrupted when Na Young immigrates with her family to Canada. 12 years hence, they chance upon each other on Facebook. Na Young, now going by the name of Nora (Greta Lee), is a playwright living in New York when she first reaches out to Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who is still in Seoul. They spend their time exchanging mundanities over numerous poor-quality Skype calls, before one day Nora decides to put a pin in their conversations. Another decade or so passes before Nora and Hae Sung reunite, but not in the way their 12-year-old selves had imagined. Nora is still in New York, married now, and Hae Sung is here only for a few days on vacation.

Past Lives (English, Korean)
Director: Celine Song
Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, and others
Run-time: 106 minutes
Storyline: Childhood sweethearts Nora and Hae Sung reunite after two decades in New York, forcing themselves to ponder upon questions of destiny, love and their choices

Filling the past two decades with vignettes of lost chances, of missed connections, Song brings to fore the present timeline in New York, where Nora and Hae Sung meet brimming with an unspoken urge to examine their past. When they first lay eyes on each other, Nora and Hae Sung express awe more than they express joy. A series of ‘woahs’ break 12-years’ worth of silence. This sentiment forms the baseline of Song’s treatment of her personal story in a way that touches a universal nerve. She handles it the same way we would handle an old toy discovered in some forgotten corner. Eliciting hazy memories and hyper-specific feelings. Nora describes in such a way too, when she talks to her husband Arthur (John Magaro), as remembering Hae Sung existing only as a young boy in her memories, then only as an unclear image on her laptop. The physicality throws her off.

A still from ‘Past Lives’

A still from ‘Past Lives’ | Photo Credit: Photo Credit: Jon Pack

Song uses every available creative tool to convey this feeling of uncovering a feeling frozen in time. Particularly, the strength of Past Lives comes from Song’s script, a script so personal that she got full creative control over it. The result in front of us is an understated but wholly affecting rumination on the immigrant experience, a part of which transcends cultural specificities. An example would be ‘In-Yun’, brought up multiple times in the film, that Song describes as “a Korean concept about fate—specifically, the destined connection between two people, informed by countless other connections with each other in past lives.” She binds Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur to each other, not as ‘fated soulmates’, but rather something more obvious and elevated.

To Nora, Hae Sung comes through as a reservoir of her childhood, a time machine through which she can access her “Korean-ness”. After spending a whole day with Hae Sung, she tells her husband that the experience made her feel Korean, while at the same time making her feel alien to his Korean-ness. Song circles back repeatedly to this notion of reaching out to her Korean heritage — something that she felt disconnected to as a person who immigrated as a child – with a creative focus on the critical role language plays in this. In New York, Nora converses in Korean with two people only: her mother, and Hae Sung over their video calls. After marrying Nora, Arthur talks to her occasionally using some basic Korean phrases, to which she responds to in English. After she meets Hae Sung, spending the whole day speaking in Korean, Arthur reveals to her that Nora ever only dreams in Korean.

Besides driving home the formidable role of language in shaping, shifting and defining our identities, the script also indicates to its role as an inviting one, and an ostracising one. How Arthur fits into Nora’s life, one Korean word at a time, and how he is immediately a stranger to Nora’s dreams and her quick conversations with Hae Sung.

In an NPR interview Greta Lee said the process of switching between the two languages “unlocked a lot of different things.” Whip-smart but quiet, dreaming of winning the Nobel, then the Pulitzer, and maybe a Tony, Nora as played by Lee is a force that stealthily torpedoes your assumptions. There is a significantly quiet segment at the end of the film, one of the many ones where Song lets silences speak louder than words, which Lee performs with acute emotional deftness. A collaboration that should yield more material, Lee and Song form the steadily beating heart of this tale.

Deriving the script from her own experience of being sandwiched between two men from vastly different parts of her life — her husband from New York, and her childhood sweetheart, visiting from Korea — Song zooms in on a severely specific desire we all have. As Nora reaches out to a Korean heritage she has preserved in conversations with her mother, a childhood that she has neatly embalmed in her interactions with Hae Sung, a mixture of guilt and remorse creeps in.

A past self, a past life stored in a person, in an object, in a city, in a country far away – how much are we entitled to that old, strange feeling of comfort now? Responding to a friend’s query on why their family is immigrating, Nora’s mother says that you have to give up certain things in order to gain others. Past Lives adds a follow-up question to this that follows you around after you finish this film: can you ever face the past self you grew out of, consciously shed and moved on from? And how will you greet it?

Past Lives will release in theatres in India on July 7

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