Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives
Guest contributor Eli Denson breaks down the cinematic and emotional power of filmmaker Celine Song’s summer hit.
When we go to the cinema, we are accustomed to satisfying our craving for a sense of relatability. It is through shared experiences, emotions, or perspectives that we, the audience, typically find our role. On the other hand, some films subvert this empathetic expectation by asking us to assume a more voyeuristic role rather than that of an active participant. Typically a film seeks our identification with the characters’ circumstances, enabling us to empathize with their struggles. But there are times when the film requires a sympathetic vantage point, not necessarily because we have walked in their shoes, but because we have grown to care for their journey. The question arises: which approach holds greater poignancy? One might argue that a film in which we become active participants alongside the characters is more impactful.
However, this explanation fails to account for the profound effect that Celine Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives, had on me personally. In this voyeuristic perspective, the true challenge lies in the filmmaker’s ability to expose their soul, relishing in their vulnerability and embracing wounds that linger long after the cameras stop rolling. Past Lives triumphs in achieving all of these objectives and more.
The story begins 24 years ago in South Korea. We are introduced to Nora and Hae Sung, two young individuals whose chemistry transcends traditional labels. The bond they share is difficult to define, existing somewhere in the realm between a romance and a friendship. They share a pure connection, untainted by ulterior motives, where their presence alone brings joy to one another. However, Nora’s family unexpectedly has to move to Canada. The two are forced to say their goodbyes, setting off on separate paths both literally and figuratively.
Twelve years later, Nora (Greta Lee) is now a playwright in New York. Through the power of social media, she is able to reconnect with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Despite their encounters being virtual, their chemistry is undeniable, surpassing the limitations of the medium. Yet they come to the realization that their friendship can only lead to a dead-end since they are trapped in different corners of the world. Reluctantly, they cut their ties and continue their individual journeys.
Fast forward another twelve years, and Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), a writer she met at a retreat in Montauk. Their love for one another is undeniable. However, their relationship carries its own complexities, seeing as Nora’s need for a citizenship visa and the practicality of sharing living expenses in New York played a role in their decision to move in together and eventually marry. Eventually, Hae Sung unexpectedly plans a visit to New York, and the deep-rooted feelings between Nora and him resurface. This further complicates the tangled web of their situation and leads them deeper into this emotional coil.
John Magaro and Greta Lee
Review (10 out of 10)
In Korean, the phrase “in-yun“ whispers of providence and fate. It is said that every time two strangers even brush against one another, no matter how unplanned, a layer of in-yun is formed. When two come to marry one another, tradition states that more than 8,000 layers of in-yun have been formed between those two souls over countless lifetimes. This tapestry of unseen connections defies rationality and binds the two souls together. Across the vast expanse of countless lifetimes, both former and future, providence orchestrates their rendezvous. The film finds its most profound preoccupation with Nora’s wrestling with fate and free will, suspended somewhere in the delicate balance between Arthur and Hae Sung.
As Nora’s two loves stand in conceptual opposition, Past Lives asserts its singularity by defying convention, leaving behind the customary trope of a traditional antagonist. Throughout the film, both Hae Sung and Arthur emerge as multi-dimensional figures, neither exhibiting any sense of villainy, thus eliciting our sympathy and understanding. Arthur’s struggle with the emotional chasm that separates him from his wife becomes persistently palpable. It is exemplified most in a poignant moment when he candidly shares how Nora speaks in her sleep but always in Korean. Arthur is currently trying to learn Korean, grappling with the reality that there’s a world — the world of Nora’s dreams — where he cannot understand her.
Likewise, we feel deeply for Hae Sung, as conditions beyond his control constrain the full bloom of his love with Nora. The connection they share transcends the boundaries of mere convenience. But the woman he loves is content in her marriage. Hae Sung subsequently finds himself confronted with a profound and agonizing reality — a delicate tightrope walk between the acceptance of Nora’s found happiness and the pursuit of his own. Wrestling with this daunting duality, he is left to ponder: are their souls reunited by the hand of fate, or is their union destined for another life’s embrace?
And then there is Nora, the fulcrum of this emotional trifecta. Torn between these two, she grapples with the same fear of disconnection that burdens Arthur, while simultaneously embracing the intricate enigmas of fate, akin to Hae Sung’s own struggles. Small gestures reveal profound emotions, such as the fleeting wave she offers to Hae Sung early in his arrival to New York. But it is the subtle grimace that flickers on her face as she notices her wedding ring, slowly lowering her hand, that speaks volumes about her internal strife. The film is patient as it unveils this vulnerability. Slowly and methodically their emotions are laid bare before us with unfeigned honesty.
Song’s screenplay is a tour de force that avoids flamboyant flourishes, instead embracing the nuance of these subtle moments. While some films heavily rely on their writing to impress the audience, dazzling them with dialogue, Past Lives embraces a more minimalist approach. Song is able to convey in a single sentence what other writers would need an entire page to express. The film’s structure is planned and purposeful, propelling the narrative forward without ever feeling sluggish. Her characters are unafraid to expose their true emotions, both in the dialogue and the exceptional performances.
Beyond its brilliant screenplay and captivating performances, Past Lives is quite the accomplishment in every aspect of its filmmaking. From the entrancing music to the artful cinematography, each element harmoniously weaves itself into the fabric of the narrative. Shabier Kirchner’s cinematographic work, with its frequent use of reflections, beckons characters and audience alike to introspection, a recurrent theme throughout this inward-facing story. The score, composed by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen, refrains from dictating to us what we should feel. Instead, it serves as a guiding light, signaling when those emotive moments arise. Editor Keith Fraase’s craftsmanship brings hidden details within the frame into focus. The intricacies of the editing invites the audience to read between the lines as he draws our attention to the minutia of the scene. It challenges and embraces its viewers, rewarding those who venture into its depths with an even more poignant, heart-rending sympathy for these characters.
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee
Song’s remarkable achievement lies in her exercise of restraint throughout the film. Transitioning from playwright to director, one can easily succumb to the allure of overwhelming the narrative with superfluous dialogue, flashy phrases, and an overbearing hand in storytelling. Yet Song’s craftsmanship becomes evident as she grasps the art of letting silence take the stage — a skill that eludes many writers. In the stillness we become attuned to the dynamics between characters, their blocking within the setting, and the subdued nuances of their body language. Amidst this silence, these details now come to the forefront of our minds, giving them entirely new meanings within the context of the scene.
(Ed. note: spoilers for the film’s ending ahead!)
As Hae Sung prepares for his flight back to Korea, Nora walks him to the spot his Uber will pick him up. The two walk from right to left across the screen, a visual leap backwards into the timeline. We are reminded of their shared childhood when their lives were once entwined. They pause in this moment, their wait feeling like an eternity under the unflinching gaze of this one-shot take. As voyeurs, we are forced to share their silence, unable to aid them in any way. Something inside us silently pleads for a farewell kiss, yet paradoxically dreads the notion. The arrival of Hae Sung’s ride reminds us of a similar image of their initial divergence. The goodbye they share echoes the opening frames of the film. As she retraces her steps back down the timeline, toward the present, Nora does something we’ve anticipated throughout the entire film: she grieves. Her inner turmoil is not about choosing between the two men — it never was. She now returns to the present moment and finds Arthur waiting for her. For the first time in the film, Nora lets herself cry. In response, Arthur simply holds her tight in a silent embrace. Not a word is spoken, yet the emotion is so palpable that their shared silence is the only utterance needed.
We again see Hae Sung, his journey now taking him from left to right, moving forward into the horizon of his future. He wears a bittersweet sense of acceptance on his face as he readies himself to turn to this new page in his life. Arthur walks with Nora back into their apartment. They move neither right nor left, neither toward the past or away from it. They simply linger still, locked in this present reality. The specter of fate, which has long haunted the characters, momentarily fades and we instead observe the sheer beauty of this precious instant where Arthur and Nora wholeheartedly love each other. All traces of jealousy vanish from Arthur’s visage, replaced by a serene understanding. The film leaves us in this instant, a poignant tableau of pain, catharsis, and hope — a moment that resonates within me personally even as I write these words.
As Past Lives ended and the credits rolled, I found myself in tears, numbed by the roller coaster of emotions I have experienced. I was not alone in this reaction, as I observed others in the theater who were equally entranced and unable to leave their seats. We communally watched as these characters exposed themselves, urging us to understand their situation even though there is no aid we can provide. By no means is this a conventional romance movie. Instead, it explores the notion of love in a unique light. It reveals its capacity to both warm and wound, asking questions of fate and free will. In another universe, would Nora choose Hae Sung? Would she find greater happiness? These queries linger, left unanswered, and that very unknowing creates an ache deep within us. Even so, we are prompted to bask in the beauty of this instant. We cast aside the alluring temptation of fate whispering “what if” in our mind, gratefully embracing the here and now.
Eli Denson is a composer currently pursuing a Masters degree in Music Scoring for Visual Media at IU’s Jacobs School of Music. In his career as a composer, Eli has composed music for numerous productions for both the stage and the screen. He is the recipient of IU Cinema’s 2024 Jon Vickers Scoring Award, which will culminate in a live-to-picture performance of his new score for the film Queen Kelly in fall 2024.