Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

Black Voices

Black Voices: “Past Lives” is platonically romantic


By the end of “Past Lives”, I felt like I had gotten to know someone. The film about two childhood best friends from South Korea who reconnect 24 years after Nora (Greta Lee) and her family immigrated to Canada. Director and writer Celine Song has created a film that is so intimate with its characters that they might as well be real people, filling a less-than-two-hour film to the brim with dialogue-heavy scenes about longing for nostalgia, love and thinking about what could have been.  

The film’s opening is quite cleverly constructed. We see a distant view of three people at a bar — an Asian man and woman sitting with a white man — as we hear two offscreen bar patrons discuss how the trio might be related to each other. Are the two Asian people married? Or are they siblings? Is the white man giving the Asian couple a tour of New York? In flashbacks beginning 24 years prior, we follow Na Young, who later goes by Nora, and Hae Sung’s (Teo Yoo) friendship from when they were just kids in South Korea all the way up to the opening scene.  

Nora and Hae Sung reconnect 12 years after they lost touch, when she finds out that he had been looking for her on Facebook but didn’t know she changed her name. Through Skype, the two stay in touch every day until Nora decides their relationship is becoming too big a distraction for her life in Toronto, especially since it would be about a year until either her or Hae Sung could fly out to visit each other.  

Another 12 years later and in the present day, Nora is living in New York and married to Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer, when Hae Sung tells her he will be visiting and would like to see her. As the two walk around New York City, they talk about what things would have been like between them had Nora never left South Korea. The sight of the Brooklyn Bridge or Statue of Liberty behind them is an exciting contrasting image to their conversations laden with musings about “what ifs.” Hae Sung also mentions recently breaking up with someone because he feels that he’s “too ordinary” and she deserved someone more worthwhile. 

The film’s prominent motif is the Korean term inyun, which is meant to describe that each meeting between two souls is the culmination of infinite meetings that happened in their past lives. For Nora, Hae Sung is what connects her to her childhood in South Korea, which feels so distant that it’s almost like a past life for her. Though, we as an audience can assume that the film will not end with Nora confessing her love for Hae Sung and filing for divorce, nor do we want her to, but there’s still something starkly romantic about how the childhood sweethearts' joke with each other about all the different things the two could have been in their past lives.  

I found it so interesting that Hae Sung commented he was “too ordinary.” I started to think more about the film’s opening scene now that I actually know who these three characters are to each other. As Nora and Hae Sung walk around the city, Song frequently cuts to wider shots where we see other couples taking photos, kissing or embracing each other. Like the couple at the bar, I started thinking about what these couples' stories might be, despite them also just being “ordinary” people. When Nora returns home and talks about the situation with Arthur, he self-deprecatingly jokes about being “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” Though, his jokes reveal another layer of just how ordinary a tale Song wishes to tell. This is pointedly not a dramatic film about the conflict of a love triangle but rather a film that’s exploring Nora’s disconnect from her identity and yearning for nostalgia.  

Get stories like this in your inbox