Past Lives Movie Review: A Love Triangle That’s Really A Tug-of-War Between Past and Present

Gayle Sequeira

Director: Celine Song

Writer: Celine Song

Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

Bookended by two departures, Celine Song’s delicate debut film Past Lives, in which a woman finds herself torn between two men, is less about the longing for someone you moved away from and more about the version of yourself that you left behind with them. Characters talk about fate and destiny, concepts that cede control of their circumstances to the universe, as a comforting counter-measure to the consequences of their actions. They’re frequently framed through windows – of cars, trains, homes – peering through the portals to another life, wondering “what if”.

As a child, Na-young (Seung Ah-moon) talks of her friend Hae-sung (Seung Min-yim) with all the clarity of knowing she wants to marry him. It’s not to be – her family is emigrating from South Korea to Canada. Song captures their last moments together through an image of two hands intertwined in the backseat of a car, solid and tangible; reality before it transforms into memory. Memory reworks itself into reality 12 years later, when Na-young, now going by Nora (Greta Lee), and Hae-sung reconnect over the internet. For audiences of a certain age, these scenes evoke a similar nostalgia for a past life too, one soundtracked by the Skype ringtone and featuring a version of Facebook that lets you see which of your friends had posted on each other’s walls. When Hae-sung’s screen freezes during a video call, it underscores the fragility of their connection, even as they slip back into an old companionship with a familiar ease. Twelve years later, an image on a screen becomes a physical presence when Hae-sung visits New York and reunites with Nora there.

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives.

How does first love shape the subsequent paths you take? And how do you square the need to move forward with the impulse to keep looking back? Song contrasts the malleability of identity with the difficulty of knowing who we really are. It’s easy to learn another language, rehearse the words until they feel right, but much harder to acknowledge to ourselves how we feel. Song and her gently panning camera instead fill stretches with silences and lingering glances, particularly during one stunning stretch towards the end that heaves with words left unsaid until it builds into a crescendo of outpoured emotion. While Hae-sung’s affection for Nora is obvious, her feelings for him are more opaque, mired in homesickness and mingled with a nostalgia for an old friendship. The past exerts its pull, but she’s emigrated twice and started over too many times to end up right back where she started.

Past Lives plays with time, compressing the revelation of Nora’s marriage to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro) in the years since she left South Korea into a single scene, but it also moves forwards in time with title cards that read “12 years pass” instead of “12 years later”, a significant word choice that conveys the weight of all the years gone by. Despite the immediacy of their social media connection, the film draws out Nora and Hae-sung’s responses to each other, revelling in her pleased smile or the morning after he gets a Facebook message from her. In one shot, the light of day fades into night as seen through a window, the sun temporarily setting on this chapter of their lives. Language becomes a barrier – between Hae-sung who only speaks Korean and Arthur who speaks English – and a bridge, between Nora and her past.

If in Aftersun, this year’s sublime release also about revisiting the past, the protagonist scoured footage of a past holiday to decipher what went wrong since, Nora and Hae-Sung scour their memories and wonder what could’ve been. Like in Aftersun, there are no easy answers. But Past Lives’ depictions of loneliness are so acute – the twinkling cityscape at night, a vacation spent almost entirely alone in one’s hotel room – that it ceases to matter which versions of ourselves we move on from, only that there have been people to share them with. To be known at all is a privilege.