Past lives

Image: Courtesy of Twenty Years Rights/A24 Films


Celine Song's film is simple without being simplistic

Underdog in the insane “Oscar race”, the Korean-American Past lives, by newcomer Celine Song, has the great merit of being simple without being simplistic. Its expressiveness lies in its delicacy, in its refusal of stridency.

Through an ingenious script device, the first scene sows curiosity and establishes one of the film's basic ideas, that alternative stories can always be invented for each individual or group of individuals. At a bar counter, in the early hours of the morning, three people in their thirties are sitting side by side: an Asian man, an Asian woman and a “Western” man. From a table some distance away, a couple we don't see speculates about who they are and what relationships they have with each other. They formulate different hypotheses, almost as if they were spectators in front of the screen, at the beginning of a film. In other words: like us.

The same scene will reappear near the end, when we will already know who the three characters were and hear what they were talking about there. It is as if the film had developed one of the hypotheses raised. Until reaching that point again, the narrative will have gone back in three stages: 25 years before, 24 years before, twelve years before...

Novel outline

It all starts in Seoul, when the boy Hae Sung and the girl Na Young are schoolmates and almost lovers. But this budding romance is interrupted when Na Young emigrates with her family to Canada and changes her name to Nora. Cut to twelve years later, when Nora (Greta Lee), an aspiring writer and playwright, participates in an artist residency near New York, while on the other side of the world Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) does his military service.

It is not advisable to anticipate the other stages of these parallel lives, connected at one point by the internet and then by a “face-to-face” meeting. Suffice it to say that a delicate game is established around the concepts of chance and destiny, condensed in the Korean expression “In-yun”, which according to Nora comes from Buddhism and means something like destiny or providence, reverberating encounters and disagreements from past lives.

But what could have the weight of a philosophical parable dissolves into softness and irony. Upon meeting a young American Jew at the artistic residency, Nora herself, after explaining the “In-yun”, says that “it’s something Koreans say to seduce someone”.

It is with this lightness of spirit that what is, in essence, a story of unconsummated love, like so many others in literature and cinema, is told. Lives that could have been and that were not.

Aware of this tradition, Celine Song plays with recurring signs from love films, occasionally transfiguring them through irony or small displacements. An example: on their walk through New York, Nora and Hae Sung arrive at an amusement park. But instead of the cliché scene of lovers having fun on a roller coaster or eating cotton candy, they sit in front of a melancholy, half-deserted carousel and talk about the times Nora was there with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). When boating down the Hudson, they pass the Statue of Liberty, but Hae Sung comments, “She has her back to us.”

Cultural contrast

There is always a balance between reality and fiction. In bed with Nora, Arthur (who is also a writer) imagines what they are experiencing as a literary narrative, in which he plays the role of the inopportune husband in the path of the lovers. The irony is bitter, but it does not lose its lightness and humor.

The issue of the Korea-US cultural contrast is not secondary. It's at the heart of the drama. At one point Nora acts as an interpreter between Arthur and Hae Sung. About the latter she tells her husband: “He is very Korean. I feel so un-Korean when I'm with him. But also, somehow, more Korean.”

The narrative progression occurs in a balance between classic “Western” decoupage and moments of contemplation and silence characteristic of certain Asian cinema, in which “dead times” gain life and meaning.

But cinema is above all image, and in Past lives there is one that summarizes the entire drama narrated: it is the fork in the road, in a peripheral neighborhood of Seoul, where the two friends are separated, little Hae Sung going up the hill on the left and little Na Young climbing the stairs on the right.

This plan returns in a flash during a conversation between the two, a quarter of a century later. Time-image (to use Gilles Deleuze's expression loosely), visual verse, eruption of the unconscious. Cinema of poetry sprouting in the middle of prose.

*Jose Geraldo Couto is a film critic. Author, among other books, of André Breton (Brasiliense).

Originally published on Cinema Blog from the Moreira Salles Institute.


Past lives (Past Lives)
USA, 2023, 106 minutes.
Direction and Screenplay: Celine Song
Cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Federico Rodriguez

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