Oscars 2024: Past Lives and the Poetry of the In-Betweener

Director Celine Song’s semi-autobiographical story is nominated for Best Original Screenplay.
Oscars 2024: Past Lives and the Poetry of the In-Betweener
Oscars 2024: Past Lives and the Poetry of the In-Betweener

The film opens at a bar, watching the three characters drinking late at night. Nora (Greta Lee) sits between her husband Arthur (John Magaro) and her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). It’s a scene of quiet but dizzying intrigue, with energy between these three changing swiftly every few seconds. Later, there will be call backs to these moments, offering insight and context to characters who are strangers to the audience. For now, we see three characters, awkwardly blocked in an imbalanced, distant frame that hints at tension between them. The distance maintained between Nora and Hae Sung contrasts how they face each other, as though the two have more to talk than they do do with Arthur, who faces the bar. He doesn’t say much. His body language marks him as the outsider, an unusual (and later, ironic) label for him considering he is the ‘white guy’. Nora seems to be something of a mediator between Arthur and Hae Sung, who radiates the exotic appeal of the handsome foreigner, but a lot seems to get lost in translation. 

The title Past Lives refers to Nora’s childhood memories in South Korea, in particular her deep friendship with Hae Sung, which are ripped from her when her family moves to America. Decades later, their paths are able to cross again and Nora embodies the tightrope that third culture kids walk, navigating what they need to let go of the past in order to embrace the path they’re on in the present. It’s almost like having a split identity, which the script conveys through the contrast between how Nora explains the Korean concept of “in yun” (a thread of fate that connects two people through reincarnated lives) in her voiceover and how she speaks of it while in conversation. The voiceover is poetic and full of yearning; in conversation with Arthur, Nora jokes that in yun is “just something Koreans say to seduce someone”. 

Intentional, meditative and meticulously detailed, the screenplay of Past Lives is a complex story that never wears its careful structure on its sleeve. Instead, it feels like a stream of consciousness or the unravelling of a distant memory, like watching time pass us by.  

You can read our review of Past Lives here

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