“Past Lives”: Reminiscences on being human–in motion, and in love (Part 1)

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Chandrasekaran Shreya (24S06A)

But let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie

Your eyes are soft with sorrow

Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.

Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, Leonard Cohen

When I first stumbled upon this film’s premise, I immediately bought a ticket for its next screening. That led me to Level 5 of Golden Mile Tower on a Tuesday evening, right after my last lesson for Term 3, still donning my school uniform.

Two childhood sweethearts–who’d grown up in South Korea–meet each other in person in New York City twenty-four years later. 

The film’s premise alone seems rather unrelatable. I’m no older than twenty-four, and I’ve never had a ‘childhood sweetheart’, let alone a past lover. Yet, I’d left the theatre feeling like an earlier time in my life had just been scrutinised under a tenderly-handled 35mm lens. Why, then, did the film resonate with me?

The answer? Past Lives is a tender, sincere traversion of human relationships, and how they’re at the mercy of forces beyond our control: time, distance, and circumstances we simply cannot change. In doing so, we’re made privy to a decades-spanning, introspective and thoroughly empathetic character study of its three leads: Nora/Na Young, Hae Sung, and Arthur. 

Each character is a tapestry of personal histories, lived experiences, longings and feelings, and we’re drawn into their real, complex, intricately crafted and thoroughly human worlds.

The film’s themes speak to us. It is an honest exploration of moments where the present we’re deeply settled into comes face-to-face with pasts we’d never fully attained closure from. And in present times, where we end and begin chapters of our life with harsh, unforgiving speeds, leaving our minds restless and hearts with no time to rest.

Seoul, Na Young, Hae Sung

Before all else, we’re introduced to a younger Nora (Na Young) and Hae Sung in Seoul. They sit beside each other in class, walk home together, and quite evidently, have feelings for each other. They’re just twelve-year-olds, but marriage is already on Na Young’s mind. 

During a parent-accompanied date, Na Young’s mother tells Hae Sung’s mother this, “When you leave something behind, you gain something too.” The film’s following moments of silence lend it gravity–and indeed, we find echoes of her words in the story to come.

Na Young and her family soon leave Seoul for Canada. The depth of Hae Sung’s burgeoning affection for her is evident in his inability to regard her in any way till they’re forced to part ways at the foot of a staircase. However, Na Young seems less affected; her face is impassive—she’s simply going through the motions of immigration. The gravity of this moment, and its implications in years to come, are unbeknownst to her.

The duo’s final moments together.

A tussle: past desires, present lives

Twelve years later, Na Young is now an aspiring writer. Taking on the English name Nora, she is well-settled in her life in New York City. It’s a chance encounter, really, that brings the two together: Hae Sung had sent a request to find Nora on Facebook, and Nora stumbled upon it months later. 

Nonetheless, it brings them both a great deal of happiness. Nora can’t stop smiling after their first video call, and Hae Sung–initially shy–gradually comes out of his shell. Their once-dormant, past affections for each other gradually resurface over the course of Skype conversations at ungodly hours and translated, back-and-forth emails.

In this sequence, the past and present collide for the first time. Hae Sung is the only person, besides Nora’s mother, to call her Na Young, and converse with her in Korean. He brings her around Seoul through the lens of his phone’s camera. Nora types out emails to Hae Sung in Korean, referencing a hastily but meticulously drawn Korean keyboard against her English one. 

Beyond reconnecting with an old flame, Nora seems to be tapping back into her Korean roots, which had inevitably been left to fade upon immigrating overseas. It’s during these video calls–for them, an ‘escapist’ realm from reality–that we see those twelve-year-olds again: just Na Young and Hae Sung, two kids with big, indiscernible feelings for each other.

The past and present collide, finally, but it is simply that: a mere collision. Before long, each heads off on their own paths. The beginnings of their renewed relationship falter: in weak Internet connections, missed video calls, and notably, a call that cuts out just as Hae Sung’s on his way to the top of Namsan Tower, a spot where couples often officialise their relationships. It’s perhaps a subtle foreshadowing of what will become of their relationship.

Similar questions, similar answers. 

They’ve been putting their present lives on hold, clutching onto the hope that the other–a remnant of their past––can become part of their new presents. But Nora’s got long-held dreams to fulfil in NYC, and Hae Sung’s set on flying to China for work. Neither is willing to give up their futures for only the potential, and not the certainty, of a past dream coming true. There’s no easy way of fitting this renewed relationship into the existing trajectory of their lives.

“I immigrated twice to be here in New York. I want to accomplish something here. I want to commit to my life here, but I’m sitting around looking up flights to Seoul instead.”

Nora, in her final call to Hae Sung

In their last call, Nora explicitly requests that they stop talking for the time being. They’re both bitter and hesitant, and Hae Sung, in his sorrow, questions his right to be sad, “What, it’s not like we were dating.” A silence on both ends follows, and weighing it down is the ambiguity of their relationship, the nature of their affection for each other, “Who am I to you? How do you see me?

Neither are willing to leave, but they know they need to. And so, they do.

Want to continue reading? Read Part 2 of our Past Lives review here!

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