Adding to the long list of heartbreak movies is Celine Song’s directorial debut Past Lives, made in 2023. Produced by A24, it tells the familiar drama story of defective love but in a new and astounding way. The story takes place over 24 years between South Korea, Canada, and the US, spanning languages, creating a seamless bridge between cultures. It shows love at various stages of maturity and how big and small choices affect life’s trajectory. There are three significant time cuts in this film which conveniently lay out the three main acts. It’s untraditional however, since each act has its own story and heartbreak. Together, they capture the beautiful and bittersweet tale of inyeon, the Korean concept of relational fate that binds us all together.
12-year-old childhood friends Na Young and Hae Sung share many moments together where they grew up in Seoul, South Korea. Every day they would walk together after school until they reached the dividing walkway, where Na Young would walk up the stairs, and Hae Sung would continue on the road. Their friendship grows and a crush quickly appears, and their parents arrange a small date for them at the park. But just as abruptly as their relationship arises, it leaves, as Na Young and her family emigrate to Canada. It is a fast exit, and both of the children are deeply affected by the sudden drastic change in their lives. Na Young picks the American name Nora and becomes quickly fascinated in the new world she calls home.
12 years later, Nora is in grad school in New York City, chasing her dreams of being an artist. Hae Sung has just finished his military service. After coincidental searching, they reconnect and develop a habit of calling each other practically every day. This is great for them both, but slowly they drift apart again as their futures don’t coincide. Eventually they stop talking and go their separate ways to advance their futures.
After another 12 years, Nora married Jewish-American writer Arthur, living and working in New York. Hae Sung is no longer with his girlfriend and leaves Korea for a vacation to visit Nora. The last time they saw each other in person was 24 years ago in their hometown which makes this moment surreal for both of them. Hae Sung’s visit causes tension in Nora and Arthur’s relationship, as Arthur wonders if he is Nora’s true love.
Nora and Hae Sung are unsure of what they are to each other, and they spend a day together in the city. Hae Sung is invited back to Nora’s apartment to meet Arthur, and they all decide to get dinner and drinks. This brings us to the moment in the film that acknowledges its situation, where Nora and Hae Sung talk in Korean about everything that has happened as Arthur sits in silence. This scene is heartbreaking since their maturity breaks Nora and Hae Sung’s love for each other, but they talk for a long time while Arthur can’t understand them. As the audience, you feel bad for everyone in this scene.
This film brilliantly explores love and the line of fate it rides on. The concept of inyeon runs throughout this whole film and causes us to think about whether there is some divine influence on the fate of Nora and Hae Sung’s meetings. Their lives are so intimately intertwined while only intersecting at three moments. It asks all the questions of circumstance: What if Nora’s family didn’t immigrate? What if they persevered and kept talking in grad school? What if Nora left and went with Hae Sung back to Korea? These questions are un answered, but such is life, looking for answers we won’t find. The time difference of 24 years could also represent hours, as days loop around just like how lives loop around in the Korean view.
The performances in this film are also incredible, with the leading actress, Greta Lee, capturing Nora amazingly and heartbreakingly. Teo Yoo’s depiction of Hae Sung is just as good, creating a convincing character struggling with affection. John Magaro’s portrayal of Arthur asks what the audience is thinking, whether Nora and Hae Sung are meant to be and whether their marriage is a strong enough bond to stay together. All the characters in this film feel like real people, and the audience is never taken out of the experience.
Celine Song has created an excellent addition to the film library, which sticks with the audience for weeks after viewing. This film has clear inspirations from projects like Lost in Translation, Before Sunrise, and In The Mood For Love, but it establishes itself as unique among the array of love and heartbreak films. The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner is some of the best work as it captures the film in its nostalgic and beautiful light. Overall, this film explores what is meant to be and how love and human interaction binds us all together.