Beyond the Road Not Taken: Past Lives is a Love Story of Thoughtful Restraint
Olivia Rutigliano Reviews Celine Song's "Devastatingly Subtle" New Film
Truthfully, I’ve been struggling to write a review of Past Lives since I saw a preview a few weeks ago. It broached a very tender part of my soul and I’ve been having trouble going back there simply to write 1,500 words. Let this be an endorsement that Past Lives, which was written and directed by Celine Song, is an excellent film, a beautiful and moving film, a film which captures so perfectly the secret uncertainty of choosing a path and allowing it to define your life.
Past Lives is framed via a simple, sequential three-act structure, like a play, with each part set 12 years away from the previous one, meaning the story takes place across 24 years. It begins around 1999/2000 in Seoul, South Korea, exploring the deep connection between two 12-year-old friends, Na Young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min). Na Young’s family is planning on moving to Canada, though—so shortly after Na Young and Hae Sung, who have giggly crushes on each other, go on their first (parentally supervised) “date,” they are separated, seemingly forever.
The second act drops in 12 years later on a much older Na Young (Greta Lee), who has long gone by her English name Nora. She is 24 in 2011/2012, living in New York City, working at becoming a playwright, and she and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who still lives in Seoul, reconnect over Facebook, beginning a short, nostalgic Skype correspondence that rekindles their feelings for one another.
Nora is gleeful that her childhood best friend/boyfriend (though those might be the same things at that preteen age) never forgot her—not only that, but also that he has also evidently been looking for her in the years since their last encounter. But she is about to go to a writer’s residency in Montauk, and Hae Sung is traveling to China to learn Chinese, and Nora realizes they will not be able to develop their relationship, or even see one another, in person for a long time, and so they break off communication to avoid slipping too far into something that will never be real.
The third act, which houses the bulk of the film (both in terms of time and emotional heft) begins another 12 years later, in 2023/2024. Nora and Hae Sung have not spoken since their video calls nearly a lifetime ago, and they are both successful adults. Nora is a playwright in New York, and she is married to a novelist named Arthur (2023’s indie cinema MVP John Magaro), whom she has been with for nearly the whole time she has not spoken to Hae Sung. But things are about to change. Hae Sung is visiting New York City on vacation for a few days, and he and Nora are about to meet face-to-face for the first time since they were children.
Their meeting is impossibly loaded; their relationship throughout the past 30 or so years has had countless layers and degrees of connection and distance. Indeed, when Nora and Hae Sung finally see each other, walking over to one another in a park on a sunny spring day, all they can say for a while is the simple exclamation “woah.”
All the layers are the point; Nora speaks about the Korean concept of “In-Yun,” which translates to “providence or fate” but is also, more abstractly, the suggestion that your encounters with people in this life reflect how close you knew them in a past life. Nora and Hae Sung have had literal past lives together as children and young adults, but also, the film wonders about that deeper concept; all three main characters (Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur) wonder if the two long-lost companions are soulmates on a cosmic dimension, unaligned in this present lifetime but destined to be with each other throughout the eons, nonetheless.
The film doesn’t get hung up on the nostalgia of this whole affair, or fall into any traps about love triangles. It instead traces the strong emotional connections that exist in normal life. Nora and Hae Sung spend two days wandering and talking through the city together. They don’t do anything in particular. They walk and talk. Visually, the film is about navigating landscapes—moving your body through spaces, while the landscape, on its own, moves through time.
It’s a story where connections are truly communicated via distance and absence rather than proximity and access. Nora and Hae Sung stroll by Jane’s Carousel on the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront but don’t ride it. They take the subway and hold onto the same pole but do not touch hands. Past Lives isn’t a grand romance of freeing experiences, so much as a love story of thoughtful restraint. It couches itself in the ordinary and uneventful, relying on the characters’ emotional connections to draw the complicated webs between them rather than thrust them into bond-forming setpieces. For this, it is devastatingly effective.
Watching Past Lives feels like what living and loving are like in reality; with all the symbolism and narrative applied by characters’ thoughts and questions and ideas, rather than by life itself. In-Yun is the framework of the film, not by the film itself but by the characters. “What a good story this is,” admits Arthur. “Childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years later and realize they were meant for each other.”
Arthur adds, “In the story I would be the evil, white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” But he is not. That’s too simple. Arthur loves his wife, and isn’t so much jealous of Hae Sung as privately overwhelmed by his fear of losing her. But he does not want to prevent her from seeing her old friend—even, her old love. He truly cares for her and wants her to be happy. When he meets Hae Sung, he likes him a lot, too. He might even understand if Nora left him for Hae Sung, because he appreciates what he perceives to be a perfectly plotted love story.
The three main characters in the film don’t exactly doubt their choices, in light of Nora and Hae Sung’s reunion—but they do toe that notion before deciding not to give into it. These are characters who do not want to upend their lives, destroy what they have built; and not throwing their homes and worlds asunder is hardly a sacrifice, either. These are characters who are happy with their lives. And yet, there is something—there could be something—to all of this, if they let it happen.
The subtlety, the normalcy, the control of Past Lives is what makes it so devastating[—what gives it such power and pathos. I didn’t realize until five minutes before the film ended that Song’s meticulous direction had carefully been holding my emotions in place, back like a dam; when she orchestrated the lifting of that barrier, I felt my feelings roll out, rush out, in a tremendous wave. I didn’t shed a tear until the film’s final moments, but I left the theater sobbing. (For the record, the film has the best final line of a movie since Casablanca.)
Via the concerns and fears of its wise (but not artificially so) characters, the film asks what it means to be someone’s soulmate, and the answer winds up being just as interesting as the inquiry. Past Lives is about how we feel like there might be something more to our existences than single lifetimes of paths taken and not taken. But Past Lives also takes us past the concept of “bygone crossroads,” proving, in the dialogue of its stunning climax, that there are ways to think about our possible past lives and past selves beyond the paradigm of the “road not taken,” too.