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Past Lives Teaches Us to be Present - Movie Review

Updated: Mar 2

by Aliki Bitsakakis

“Either a film has something to say to you or it hasn’t. If you are moved by it, you don’t need it explained to you. If not, no explanation can make you moved by it,” - Federico Fellini. 

The latest film to move me is Past Lives, written and directed by Celine Song. The story follows Nora, Na Young, who grew up in Korea until her family immigrated to Canada. In Korea, her childhood sweetheart was a boy named Hae Sung. Twelve years after Na Young leaves Korea, she and Hae Sung reconnect online, as he still lives in Korea and she lives in New York. They lose touch once again, until twelve years after that, Hae Sung comes to New York to visit Nora as well as meet her husband, Arthur. This film reflects reality and encourages its viewers to live in the present. It’s about communication, learning how to understand one another, and positioning our own identities within our realities. It got me, and got many viewers with a heavy cry during the rolling credits, because Song expertly captured a feeling, without trying to convince you of one thing or another.
I’ve mentioned in a previous review about Oppenheimer the importance that I place on emotional core. Anyone can write about anything, but we cannot write in such a way that our stories will only connect with those who have experienced something similar. The plot of this story will affect those from immigrant families, those who feel they are caught between two identities and two worlds. But the audience is much wider than that. Celine Song wrote this story in a way that any human being can get something from it. If you have any sort of regret in your life, if you have a habit of thinking “what if,” if you fantasize about the stranger you brushed shoulders with on the subway, if you are in a new place and feel like a fish out of water, if you have love inside of you, if you struggle to convey that love to others, if you feel like time is passing and you feel helpless because there’s nothing you can do about it, you can connect to this film.
Film is about communicating emotion. Human beings will always naturally turn to art. When we are going through a rough time, when we are feeling an emotion that we do not know how to describe, we turn to our writers, our artists, to convey our emotion, to give it words, to help us understand ourselves. Never in this film did I feel that Song was presenting me with an idea, or telling me how to think or feel. She was simply inviting me to feel. She was opening up her world and her experience, and allowing me to tiptoe in and find a point of similarity between us. And we got to sit in that similarity for two hours. It would have been easy to turn this story into a love triangle, to create hostility between the childhood sweetheart and the husband. But that isn’t necessarily real. Movies and TV have taught us that these dramatic situations and big blowups are commonplace. They aren’t, what you’re watching is made-up. Song set out to create something here that felt real, that didn’t use any movie tropes as a storytelling crutch. And the result is an experience that feels like it has happened to all of us. 
Not only does Song use the medium of film to communicate with viewers, but the film itself is about communication. It’s about our relationship to one another and how difficult it is to fully understand each other. Our entire lives depend on understanding and that’s why it’s such an important topic. Song used the immigrant story to represent this difficulty of communication, and how it isn’t as simple as knowing about other cultures. When Nora and Arthur are in bed, Arthur tells her that she sometimes talks in her sleep. And she speaks in Korean. He describes that at first he found this funny, but now he’s realizing that there is an entire world inside of her that he will never be able to access. Arthur has been learning Korean for Nora. They also traveled to Korea together. But truly understanding someone runs deeper than that, and Arthur recognizes that he and Nora will always be fundamentally different. Does that mean they cannot love each other? Of course not. But both are human beings with different minds and different experiences. So it isn’t about pretending those differences don’t exist, but it’s about communicating our emotions to each other and finding some way to bridge the gap between our worlds. It’s hard to love someone when you cannot understand them. It’s even harder to go through life without loving. 
Nora/Na Young is stuck between two worlds and Song beautifully captured that feeling through her confident direction. Firstly, the film is bilingual: it is in both Korean and English. Arthur knows a little Korean and Hae Sung knows a little English, as each man is trying his best to cross into the other world. But it is only Nora/Na Young who has a foot in each pond. Language can bind people together or create points of division, because it’s about communication. In this film, the English-speaking audience was given subtitles to understand the Korean. We were allowed to see both sides of this division, while experiencing each man’s position as well, seeing their struggle and discomfort within the other language. Seeing each side made me realize that boundaries are what we make of them. We can let language put up walls between us, or we can try to still find ways to communicate with each other. That communication may be a little messy, but it’s always possible.
The visual storytelling in this film also conveys the relationship between characters. When Na Young and Hae Sung are speaking on Skype, they are each framed in a way that allows space for the other in the shot. Nora/Na Young is sitting at her desk, facing right. Cut to Hae Sung sitting at his desk, facing left. They are facing each other even though they are on different continents. The position of the camera in these two shots situates them in the same emotional space, even though they are nowhere near each other. When they meet for the first time in twenty years in person, the camera swings between the two of them, so they are never in the same shot, a big grey empty space hanging between them. Song uses the movement of the camera to now create emotional space between these two characters, who have otherwise been characterized by physical space. The relationship between these two characters is always changing, evolving and devolving, and filmmaking is used to represent how they are each feeling. At the very end, when they are saying bye to each other, we cut to an earlier shot when the children are saying goodbye, when Na Young’s family was leaving Korea. That dramatic cut tied the whole movie together, and this is one of the reasons this could only be a film, because such a cut could not be achieved on a stage or on a page. Seeing the comparison between childhood and adulthood, you realize how intertwined these lives are, and how one moment could not exist without the other. Going back to the title of the film, past, present, and future seem to be wrapped up into one, which is why it’s so hard for Nora/Na Young to describe how she’s feeling in each given moment, because she feels it all. Having love and admiration for her childhood sweetheart does not take away from the love she has for her husband – all of that can coexist. 
Another dosage of reality in this film is when Arthur and Nora are describing their relationship. I like them as a couple because they reveal the insecurity that seems quite common, that their story isn’t good enough. It’s not grand or romantic. They met at a writer’s residency and then got married so Nora could get her green card. For these two writers, they seem a little embarrassed that their story isn’t the greatest love story to ever grace the screen. But it’s real. And it is good enough because it’s their story. Objectively, Na Young and Hae Sung have a better story, being torn apart in different countries until they are finally reconciled and Na Young leaves her husband to be with her childhood sweetheart. That would make a better story, and I’m happy the movie did not end like this. Because that wouldn’t be real. In real life, people come in and out of our lives, and the current story we are living is the only thing that’s real. There are questions of fate in this film, as the term “in yun” is mentioned multiple times, the Korean word for reincarnation. The idea here is that two people could have crossed paths many times in their past lives. It’s one of those things that we can’t prove or disprove. It may simply be a concept to make us feel a little better about all those “what if” rabbit holes. The thing I took away from this element of the film is that whether past lives exist or not, whether some element of “fate” exists or not, that does not remove value from our current lives. Nora is married to Arthur. And they’re happy. They can talk about their emotions, express how at times they feel far away from each other, they can work on themselves and strengthen their relationship like any regular couple. They can say their story isn’t too exciting, but still look at wedding pictures with smiles on their faces. Nora’s current life is no less magical if another timeline exists where things turned out different for her. And in that timeline, her reality would also be enough. Maybe the reason we all found this film so emotional is because it forcefully situated us all in the present. Movies in inherently do that, making us pay attention to the thing in front of us for two hours. This story revealed the importance of the present, and how all these things can exist simultaneously. And that’s a lot to handle. Letting past regrets leave our bodies, allowing how we are feeling at this given moment take over. It’s a lot. And Celine Song, paired with Greta Lee’s phenomenal performance, encouraged us to take a breath and feel what it’s like to not consider the past or the future.
Na Young tells Hae Sung that she’ll see him in a past life, and he drives off. Nora then walks home to Arthur, and cries in his arms. That cry was a release for the audience as well. We just experienced two hours of life. Celine Song perfectly captured love, regret, memory, displacement, identity, and confusion about all those concepts in one film, and like Nora, I was bubbling over with emotion that needed a release. It wasn’t a happy or a sad cry. Just a cry. And Nora is guided up the stairs by Arthur to continue living their lives. This film invited us to feel, and to take some time in a space where we can try to better understand one another.

This is a movie review on past lives.

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