A Woman Satisfied: Alyssa Songsiridej on the Refreshing Lack of Regret in Past Lives
“Nora lives just one life, one she wants and that she has chosen.”
At first glance, director and screenwriter Celine Song’s debut film, Past Lives, seems to be made specifically for someone like me: an Asian American female writer, a resident of a large East city, an aging millennial obsessed with the film’s lead actress, Greta “Sweet Birthday Baby” Lee. But this first-blush recognition of myself in Nora Moon, the film’s protagonist, inspired not only anticipation but also, beneath it, dread.
I assumed, thanks to the targeted Instagram ads flooding my feed, that this film was fundamentally a love story, a triangle set between Nora, Hae Sung—the childhood sweetheart she left in Korea—and Arthur, her American husband. Surely, some flame of romance would be rekindled between Nora and Hae Sung, reminding them both that he’s Nora’s true love. Why else cast the extremely hot German-South Korean actor Teo Yoo as the adult Hae Sung? Meanwhile, Arthur (Joe Magaro) is shaggy and flannel-clad, the author of a novel called Boner. Surely Nora’s inyeon, a Buddhist Korean concept roughly translating to fate, can’t lead to the Boner guy. Even Arthur, with a fiction writer’s instinct for plot, reflects that Hae Sung and Nora’s reunion makes for a “nice story,” albeit one where Arthur plays the “evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.”
“Are you sure you want to come with me?” I asked my own “evil white American husband.” I was reluctant to watch a film that I assumed would show a marriage like ours as essentially lacking, an expectation born from living under a culture that exhibits, at best, a low-grade condescension toward Asian American women in relationships with white men. As the writer Kathy Chow notes in her essay “On Loving White Boys,” paranoia pervades many of our current narratives about interracial relationships, and with only the trailer as context, I assumed Past Lives would buckle to this familiar anxiety.
I was reluctant to go watch a film that I assumed would show a marriage like ours as essentially lacking.
But the film does something much subtler and smarter than simply reiterating received ideas about the internal lives of immigrant women. The opening shot, in fact, seems to deliberately toy with the audience’s expectations: the three leads are shown at a distance in a New York City bar, while two people speculate via voiceover about their relationship to one other. Are the Asian people together, or the Asian woman and the white guy? What narrative can we, the viewers, shove these characters into, guided inevitably by the question of which love interest suits Nora best?
Song’s script refuses to define Nora by her romantic relationships, or to saddle her with a neurotic sense of un-belonging so prevalent in our conception of immigrant stories. Instead, Past Lives gives Nora certainty and great creative ambition as a playwright, and works in direct tension with our expectations about the emotional reality of an Asian American woman. Sure, Greta Lee’s Nora lives with some “what ifs.” But “what if,” the film suggests, isn’t the same as regret.
When I left the theater after seeing Past Lives at an early screening in Philly, the other movie-goers, including my husband, seemed unsure about the film’s third act. Set in the present day, during Hae Sung and Nora’s reunion 24 years after Nora emigrated, the final third of the film is where the trailer gets all its shots of longing: Hae Sung and Nora lounging in front of the Brooklyn Bridge carousel, their hands nearly touching on a subway pole. But outside of these moments, Nora and Hae Sung’s reunion feels stripped of romantic possibility. (My husband described the end of the film as “25 minutes of watching a woman wait for a guy to leave.”) When Nora first sees Hae Sung, she does break into girlish glee: “Whoa,” she repeats, becoming, for a moment, Ni-Young, the 12-year-old girl who had been in love with him. But after their first afternoon together, she dissects everything with Arthur. While the conversation stokes Arthur’s jealousy, (“Is he good-looking?” Arthur asks, while Nora moisturizes in their bathroom), Nora’s careful examination of how Hae Sung made her feel (“And I feel so not Korean when I’m with him but also, in some way, more Korean—so weird”), made it clear to me that poor jet-lagged Hae Sung did not stand a chance with the adult Nora. She may hold the memory of different versions of her past selves, but she’s self-aware and solid enough in her life to not go chasing after them. As she jokes to the increasingly insecure Arthur, she “would never miss her rehearsals for some guy.”
The nature of immigrant regret is a well-trod topic. A couple of months ago, I heard another Asian American writer argue that all immigrants live with the specter of the person they would have been if they’d never left their home countries. Theoretically, this cultural doppelganger exists to undermine the immigrant’s current American experiences, splitting them in half. Such an idea about immigrants is highly familiar; it’s played out to its most deranged conclusions in A24’s Oscar-winning Asian American blockbuster, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Yet when I heard the writer say this, I thought—really, all immigrants?Sure, Greta Lee’s Nora lives with some “what ifs.” But “what if,” the film suggests, isn’t the same as regret.
Unlike in Everything Everywhere’s ecstatic multiverse, Nora lives just one life, one she wants and that she has chosen. During the film’s second act, when Nora and Hae Sung are 24, they rediscover each other on Facebook, falling into long, intimate Skype conversations. But when Nora realizes that logistically, a relationship isn’t possible, and that their digital connection is taking her out of her life, she ends it. “I’ve emigrated twice to be here,” she tells him, choosing, in this moment, to focus on the life she wants rather than the one she left behind.
Nora loses something by making this choice. As she tells Hae Sung at age 36, the 12-year-old Na Young does not exist here, in America. That girl has been left behind. Song acknowledges in an interview with the AP that Na Young deserves to be grieved. But as Nora’s mother says to Hae Sung’s mother before the family’s move to Canada, when something is lost, something is also gained.
Song is careful not to make this sense of different selves, or lost potential, a function of immigration specifically. In the same interview, she says that the story is about “what it’s like to live our lives and grow older and move and move on.” She continues: “I think that is something we have to do, no matter who you are. And every step of the way I wanted to convey the way that time and space feels for all of us, as human beings.” It’s notable that while the film centers Nora’s “what ifs,” Arthur is the one who, during an anxious late-night conversation, explicitly poses the question. What if someone else had taken his place at the Montauk residency where they met, or if they hadn’t both been single and living in New York at the time? One slight change of circumstances and Nora could have been married to another person. “Is this what you imagined for yourself when you left Seoul?” he asks. “When I was a 12-year-old?” Nora replies, punctuating the heavy conversation with Lee’s comedic sensibilities. She doesn’t understand why he’s thinking through all of this. She’s married to him, she points out. This is her life.
“You are someone who leaves,” Hae Sung says to Nora in the NYC bar scene, where we eventually return to see it from the characters’ point of view. But for Arthur, Hae Sung declares, Nora’s inyeon is to be someone who stays. There’s a tenderness in Hae Sung’s statement, rather than bitterness or judgment. A Ni-Young who had remained in Korea, and who would have been happy in a life there with him, would not have been Nora at all. The fact of her leaving, the choices and actions that have made possible her career as a playwright, have made Nora who she is, and they’re inextricably woven into Hae Sung’s feelings for her. In this moment, the three characters step out of our assumptions and into their own stories. By refusing to pit these two men, and these two possible lives, against each other, Song shows a portrait of a full, specific woman whose emotional story is, for me, a refreshing antithesis to the movie I expected to see. How wonderful it is to see a character like Nora being allowed to exist, settled into herself, completely and fully alive.