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Celine Song’s Past Lives

A reverie on love’s lingering melancholy

Past Lives is not a typical romance, Celine Song delivers a realistic, albeit constructed and honest portrayal of the complexities and contradictions of human relationships. Her directorial debut is a richly poetic and affecting exploration of the sorrows and joys of falling and being in love as well as a contemplation on how the past influences the present.

Written by


Aug 8, 2023

© A24

It begins in a bar in New York. We hear voices whose owners we don’t see. They are facing a woman, with a man to her left and right, wondering what kind of situation this might be—is one of them her lover and then who is the other person? We don’t get an answer yet, only a distant gaze from the woman, directly into the camera, directly at us.

Next, the film jumps back 24 years to this woman’s childhood. No longer in New York, but in Seoul, South Korea. We learn that her name is Na-young. She is walking home from school with a boy, Hae-sung. A few scenes later we see them playing together. “They are a perfect match” the boy’s mother observingly acknowledges. A little later, however, the girl leaves Korea for Toronto with her family—the boy being visibly devastated by this.

Another time leap, this time 12 years later. Hae-sung is now a playwright. She learns that her old childhood sweetheart Hae-sung is looking for her on Facebook and the two get in touch. Something familiar from a past time resounds—Doo-di-doo-di-doo-doo—the Skype melody, a well known echo of days long gone, resonates like the heartbeat of a forgotten era. Along with it, bad connections and frozen screens that make the reconnection between them heartily genuine.

Another 12 years later—Hae-sung is now married. She tells her husband that her childhood sweetheart is coming to New York, it is the first time they are seeing each other since childhood.

© A24

“In its authenticity, the film is up there with Linklater's Before trilogy, but it is remarkably quieter and more restrained, not least because of its characters.”

Far from relying on clichés or plot lines, the film focuses on the subtle nuances and emotions that emerge from the dialogue and chemistry between the actors. Often it are moments in which nothing happens besides one-sided glimpses, consciously away from or at each other. In its authenticity, the film is up there with Linklater's Before trilogy, but it is remarkably quieter and more restrained, not least because of its characters.

“What I’m supposed to say now?” Hae-sung asked her childhood love after meeting each other for the first time since she has left. Song depicts moments in which things remain unspoken due to reticence or language barriers. The film uses many wordless gestures or inhibited responses to create an interplay of distance and intimacy among her characters. The triangular setting and the circumstances of the characters cause love to be shown so wildly, changing from hopeful to hopeless in a second.

Often, Song doesn’t so much let her protagonists speak as she holds up a mirror, literally beckoning the viewer in to reflect on his or her own feelings, as everyone experienced moments of being in love. In the interactions they have, we sense that life has caught up with the love of times past. Not interested in the typical twists and turns of classic romance films, Song doesn’t make the husband appear as an unfaithful slob just waiting to be dumped. Far from it, his feelings are explored as well and he turns out to be a likeable guy. The encounter of the two men seems remarkable and almost surreal in that the film isn’t concerned in a melodramatic quarrel between them, the film rather illuminates the two as past and present, reverie and reality.

Throughout the film, there are frequent references to fate, the so-called concept of In-yun, which states that soul mates are made possible through past life encounters. Yet the film is more profound in its exploration of the way deep emotional bonds are formed. What ifs keep looming, and the question arises as to whether the deep affection shared by Hae-sung and Na-young would have developed if their separation as children hadn’t been so abrupt. Otherwise it might have remained nothing more than a fond childhood memory, already forgotten..

Something Song succeeds at tremendously is creating a sense of time and space. The quiet moments in which Hae-sung and Na-young just look at each other are truly captivating in their reflective sincerity, moments full of longing that are staged so intensely that one can almost hear a quiet plea for time to stop its incessant course in order to linger in this temporal oasis. The question of what could have been keeps coming up, making Past Lives as much a film about longing as it is about love.

Alternate takes

Written by

Past Lives uses gentle and tender imagery to tell a heart touching tale.

Na-young, or Nora as she’s called after her immigration, and Hae-sung reconnect after 12 years of separation, but their reconnection is complicated by the fact that Nora has moved to New York and is trying to make a new life for herself as a writer, while Hae-sung is still in Seoul. Nora tells him that she wants them to stop contacting each other as she has just moved to New York and she wants to build a life and put down roots in the city, and connecting with Hae-sung will bring that to a halt and make her want to go back to Seoul. Director Celine Song captures the intermingling and entrenchment of two cultures, as well as the emotional turmoil of the characters, with a subtle and sensitive style—relating the now with her past, which feels like a life gone by. However, the threads of her past and future remain disjointed, this is a common motif of immigrants. Nora is conscious of this and makes her own decision-to pursue the life she envisions in New York, she has to let go of the deep emotional ties binding her to Hae-sung.

Throughout the film there are recurrent mentions of the concept of In-yun, which foreshadows the connection and meeting of two people who have already met in past lives, but the director also leads her characters to the question of whether predestinations have to mean that one cannot choose one’s own path—how much does the past affect the way to live?

Celine Song also possesses a keen ability to select the right cast, especially Teo Yoo. His charming mélange of innocence and charisma adds to the conviction of the deep bond between Nora and Hae-sung, whereas solely relying on their normal childhood story wouldn’t have persuaded the audience. Therefore, I tend to see Hae-sung is not only an attractive amorous man, but also a symbol of Nora’s idealised vision of Korea and her past.

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