Fran at the Movies: Past Lives (2023)


It was novel the first time someone mentioned it to me, the way in which, on FaceTime or Zoom or Skype or whatever, we’re often inclined to look at our own faces rather than those of the people or person we’re talking to. I am guilty of this, no doubt, studying my own reactions, checking to see if my eyebrows are twins or sisters (or cousins). It is self-absorbed, but not psychopathic behavior. We are all learning who we are for the length of our lives. 

You get what you bring into Past Lives, a lush and dreamy new film and the directorial debut of playwright Celine Song, a story of love and loss and reconnection between two childhood sweethearts across a quarter-century and two continents. At the film’s center is the ever-wonderful Greta Lee as Nora, a playwright in New York City, who as a child in South Korea—back when she was known as Na Young—grew close with a clever intuitive classmate named Hae Sung (played as an adult by Teo Yoo). They played, they studied, they went on a parent-supervised date. Their chemistry is in no way adult or sexually motivated—though Na Young tells her mother that she finds Hae Sung “manly”—but there is a sweet spark that is quick to dull with the news that Na Young’s family will be moving to Toronto. Their goodbye is abrupt and unremarkable. Who is to say if they will ever see each other again.

This is a movie, though, so of course Nora and Hae Sung will see each other again: their brief and speculative meetings and re-meetings set in a hazy, gray New York City. Song is not intent on an objective New York nor an objective artists’ experience: Nora’s MFA program is engaging and (mercifully) silent, with workshops set in montage, and we never see her struggle for rent (her studio apartment is as chic as such a thing can be). Many of the background extras outside of Nora’s program are couples—wooing, kissing, holding hands. It is a city of love, but Nora is motivated towards ambition—she wants to win awards!—though we do not often see her writing, or even going to, plays. Her work is set-dressing, elegant and artful. 

In a fit of casual name-searching in the early days of Facebook, Nora looks up Hae Sung and adds him as a friend. Soon, they are not only messaging, but Skyping, their video chat sessions lasting hours while they eat meals or lie in bed, making due with half a day’s time difference as though it were nothing. Hae Sung is an engineer—studious and serious, living at home with his parents. Their conversations are easygoing and nice, each providing the other an escape from their world. Through Nora, Hae Sung gets a glimpse into immigrant life; Nora can see what her fate would have been if her family stayed in South Korea. 

Like many Internet friendships, Nora and Hae Sung eventually drift apart. She goes off to a writing residency where her paths cross, just as surreptitiously as they did with Hae Sung in their childhood, with a writer named Arthur (John Magaro). Their courtship is short and cute. She is grieving something she doesn’t have, and he is there. Years pass, time shifts––in the blink of an eye, Nora and Hae Song are in their thirties, and he is coming to New York for the first time, twelve years after she asked him to. Her life, however, is markedly different: Nora and Arthur are now married, while Hae Song still drifts in and out of relationships, still living with his parents. The final act of the movie is their reunion––Arthur in tow for part of it––an accumulation of unsaid feelings, realizations, and farewells.

A less-than-generous read of Song’s film would note that the first half, if not two thirds, of Past Lives feels a little clunky and forced, the situation almost reverse-engineered to lead up to its third act. There are lines of dialogue that say more than they show (one of Nora’s mother’s friends remarks, “You’re a successful artist, and your husband is a director––why would you move to Canada?” spelling out the stakes of their decision with clumsy economy), and through the fuzzy and glitching early-2010s MacBook screens, Nora and Hae Sung have anything but chemistry, going through the motions of their mundane lives.

But to consider a more generous read, one that feels more in line with the film’s glistening humidity and its perfectly dreary New York landscape, would suggest that it’s the culmination of a series of seemingly lifeless or otherwise unremarkable moments that often land with the heaviest impact. For two decades of their lives, Nora and Hae Sung have play-acted a childhood relationship. They talk to each other with all of the subtlety of young adults, the mechanics and flaws of their maturity never crossing the screen. But here, in New York, the film’s present, time has finally caught up to them. Their lives are permanent, unmovable things.

The presence of Arthur helps complicate the situation. Though he and Nora married in order for her to get her green card, their affection is the result of time and work and eventually, too, love. He knows he cannot deny Nora access to Hae Sung, but his jealousy, though muted, is palpable and felt. Still: he would hate to be, as he calls himself, “the white husband” in the situation, villainous or possessive. Mostly he’s along for the ride, listening along to their conversations in Korean though he might only understand one in every six words. When he and Nora and Hae Sung go home after the end of a long night, the grace he shows them is stilted, but felt. Love often hurts.

Nora is hesitant to come forward about much of her Korean heritage when she is not talking to or about Hae Sung, but there is a moment, right around the film’s middle point, when she and Arthur are up too late at their residency, and she explains the concept of in-yun, a kind of destiny that links people together, whether they brush each other in the street or are related by blood. She explains the concept, which pops up again and again, like a fateful omen throughout the rest of the film, as a means of seduction. It is bullshit, maybe, but it works, conjuring love from where there once was none. By the film’s end, it’s clear, too, that Hae Sung and Arthur now share in-yun, forever bound by their mutual love of the same person. Nora is split between them––one in past, one in present––the future only hers to decide, the weight of which tethers her to the earth.