Filmmaker Celine Song had a unique moment when her childhood sweetheart and her husband met. This moment was very significant to her, and it became the seed of her film, “Past Lives.” The film has been called “a modern romance,” but to me, it is much more than that. “Past Lives” is ageless to me, which is also true of films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Her,” and even “My Girl”. All of these films cropped up in my mind while writing this review.
“Past Lives” follows Nora, based on Celine, an immigrant from South Korea, who rekindles a relationship with her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung ,online in her twenties. Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship peters out because of the distance between them, but it then reignites when Hae Sung comes to visit Nora twelve years later in New York City. By this time, Nora has married Arthur (John Magaro), and when Hae Sung comes to visit, she finds herself reconnecting with her past love, and in a way, her past self.
The adult Nora is played by the talented Greta Lee (Russian Doll, The Morning Show) in a moving, Oscar-worthy performance. The adult Hae Sung is played by Teo Yoo who plays his character with the sort of vulnerability that only comes from heartache. As I learned watching the Q&A with the cast and director, Song was very instrumental in capturing such vividly realized performances from her actors. She did this by keeping Teo Yoo and John Magaro separate from each other throughout the preparation of the film. While they were separated, Greta Lee would feed info to each of them about the other actor. This was a genius move by Song.
“In-Yun,” a Korean term that is thread throughout the film, brings another layer to the relationship between Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur. It is a term that stems from Buddhist origins that plays on the idea of meeting someone in this life whom you’ve known in a past life. In the production notes on this film provided by A24, it defines “In-Yun” as a “destined connection between two people that has been informed by countless other connections with each other in past lives.” And Song is quoted saying, “I know that In-Yun is, and can be, a romantic notion, but at the end of the day it is more just about people’s relationships and intimacy than anything else. It is about the feeling of being connected and appreciating the people who enter your life— in this one, or the one before, or the ones to come.”
I did not have a childhood sweetheart. I was a lonely child, even though I had friends. I lived most of my life as a child through my imagination. My soul mates as a child were characters in books, and people whom I met onscreen, and the boys in the stories that I made up. I was always fascinated about having a childhood sweetheart as a kid. I remember watching Macaulay Culkin and Anna Chlumsky in “My Girl”, and I so wanted to find my own Thomas (without the tragic ending of course!). But that childhood sweetheart was more in my dreams than reality.
As I grew up, I did become more disconnected from that imaginative child while I was trying to fit in with everyone else. In my twenties and thirties, I was in relationships that I so wanted to be in the vein of that epic kind of love, but it wasn’t until I met my husband Matt at age 36 when I truly felt that. My story, and Celine’s story, may be different, but they both can be seen as very layered. Matt and I first met on the radio, and our first conversation was recorded on a late night radio station. Truckers at midnight listened to us talk for the first time, and there was electricity in those radio waves. I feel these kind of stories, slices of life, moments of romance, are really being tapped into more and more through independent film.
I love how Nora and Hae Sung watched Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” while they were having their long-distance relationship. That film is also very layered. Like “Past Lives,” it breaks through the psychological imprint an important relationship has on your life. There is a scene in Gondry’s film when Joel (Jim Carrey) is having his last memory of Clementine (Kate Winslet) before she is totally erased from his memory. This last memory starts at the beginning of their relationship in the house where they first met, and the house is literally falling apart. This scene is as wrenching as the one at the end of Song’s film, when Nora says goodbye to Hae Sung. The relationship they built together is coming to an end, and it is clear that he must return to South Korea where his girlfriend lives, and Nora must continue her life with Arthur.
The film is ageless to me, but could be seen as modern because it embraces that idea of how love cannot be contained. It’s a chasm that overflows. It made me think of Spike Jonze’s “Her”. When we come to the end of the film, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) finds out that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his AI lover, has been in love with not just him but many other humans (8,316 to be exact). His mind cannot comprehend it. Her response is that the love she learned from him opened a part of herself, a love that ebbed and flowed and connected with so many on a soul to soul level. What we learn through stories in “Past Lives” and in other films is that our first loves can open ourselves up to more.
“Past Lives” is so nuanced, and so gorgeous. I would argue that New York City is one of the most romantic cities in the world. The “In-Yun” magic comes to the screen when Nora and Hae Sung are spending time together at the carousel by the Brooklyn bridge, on the ferry passing the Statue of Liberty, and in a late night candle-lit bar. These kinds of experiences imprint on you, and it’s euphoric. The two are able to reignite where they left off in-person at a young age, kind of like the fantasy I so desired as a child. And then when Nora says goodbye and she cries in Arthur’s arms, we feel her pain in saying goodbye to that youthful part of herself.
As adults, we are all fractured people. We’ve lived lives, layer after layer. Our childhood fantasies gave us a foundation for our hopes and dreams, but it is in the real world to which we must stumble, and those who are with us through the stumbling are supporting the pieces of who we have become and who we are becoming.
Past Lives is now playing at select theaters, and is playing in theaters nationwide starting on June 23.