“Past Lives”: Reminiscences on being human–in motion, and in love (Part 2)

Reading Time: 10 minutes

By Chandrasekaran Shreya (24S06A)

Missed Part 1 of this series? Access it here!

Confronting one’s past, twenty-four years later

Twelve years pass. 

Nora–twelve years older, pin-straight hair now a mess of waves–is an accomplished writer. She’s married to Arthur, a fellow creative she’d met at an artists’ residency. He is presumably born and raised in America, and in a tender gaze he casts at Nora from across the street, we know from the get-go that he adores her.

As per an earlier request to meet Nora during his vacation in NYC, Hae Sung finds himself in a public park in the city: backpack securely strapped to his shoulders, pacing back and forth, brushing his hair back as he waits. He waits, footing faltering in this foreign land, till a familiar voice–one he’d been anticipating–calls out his name. 

It’s Nora, smiling, as she walks forward and embraces him. 

In this moment, for the second time, the present and past collide.

Conversation (in Korean) between them flows easily as they tour NYC, catching up on each other’s life. Surrounding them are passing, hazy figures of duos in the background, no doubt couples, engaging in the same activities. 

On a ferry, Nora shows Hae Sung photographs of her wedding. Hae Sung’s gaze strays, flitting between the screen and Nora, resting on the latter for a beat longer. It at once carries dual lilts of tenderness and wistfulness.

In another scene, Hae Sung’s gaze still lingers on Nora. 

They sail around the Statue of Liberty, Hae Sung saying, “It turned against us,” as they face its back. And a moment later, the weight of that line set in. I audibly sighed in my seat, for in that line alone, I feel, rests the crux of the film. 

The statue of liberty: symbolic of the American dream that thousands across the world hunger for. It’s a desire for a renewed, prosperous life, and for Nora, one where her childhood dreams can be realised (“Koreans don’t get Nobel Prizes.”), and it’s precisely this dream that turned against them: against a shared future with each other. Their story is a microcosm of many others out there; how many relationships might’ve been uprooted simply because of one’s pursuit of a better life? 

Beyond the heartbreak that comes with parting, there’s the added complexity of knowing that, no matter the devastation it’ll cause, it’s in their best interests to move; as many say, if you love someone, you’d let them go, wouldn’t you? Hae Sung echoes this in a bittersweet admission, “Seoul really was too small for your ambition.”

On screen, their relationship is shrouded in uncertainty: Are they two strangers, getting to know each other? Or two estranged lovers, attempting to regain their footing? 

Hae Sung’s gaze is always tender, hints of longing bleeding through, and Nora is earnest, smiling, willing to indulge him. Yet, there lingers an air of ambiguity to their interactions. Some silences stretch on for too long, one’s caught off-guard by the other’s actions; they aren’t in tune anymore. The earlier dichotomy of ‘strangers vs. estranged lovers’ isn’t really a dichotomy–they’re both at once.

When they part, we see the day’s tensions uncoil to give way to what feels like a quiet heave of resignation, settling heavy in Hae Sung’s chest. In his hotel room, overlooking a nightscape dotted by bright street lights and skyscrapers, he seems to be coming to terms with the fact that Nora really has moved on. It’s been twenty-four whole years of her life that he’d missed. And here, crumbling in his hands is the prospect of how he fits, or even can fit, into her life now.

I think I just missed him a lot. I think I missed Seoul.

Nora, to Arthur

Nora, too, is left off-kilter. She doesn’t just see the boy she used to love in Hae Sung; in him, she sees Seoul. After all, her fondest memories with him were situated in Seoul, tied to specific places, foods, and cultural practices. When she sees him, she sees the life she’d left behind as a twelve-year old–something she, likely, despite the past twenty-four years, still hasn’t come to terms with. 

It’s been a long, twenty-four years, and the chasm between them has only widened. Hae Sung grapples with the ambiguity of his feelings for Nora, wondering if the girl he’d loved still exists, if they can somehow become fixtures in each other’s lives, if he even has the right to ask that of her anymore. For Nora, beyond coming to terms with the feelings she’d harboured for this boy, she has a whole past, miles and years away from the life she’s built up in NYC, to finally confront.

Hae Sung, Arthur

In this film, Nora is loved by two men: Hae Sung and Arthur. The grounds on which either man can be villanised are fertile: Arthur, for interfering with a ‘fated love’ between Nora and Hae Sung, or Hae Sung, for suddenly reappearing in and complicating Nora’s life years later; yet, the film villanises neither of them. Inevitable circumstances have simply landed them in conflicting roles in Nora’s life.

“Childhood sweethearts who reconnect twenty years later only to realise they were meant for each other. […] In the story, I would be the evil American husband standing in the way of destiny.”

Arthur (but really, it’s what most of us would initially be thinking too, isn’t it?)

One’s from Nora’s past, the other’s in Nora’s present; one’s from Seoul, the other’s from the USA. One might thus assume them to be starkly different in character. However, I found myself noticing more similarities than differences between the two. 

Perhaps it’s due to the universality of a human being in love, where insecurity, unfortunately, often silently resides. Furthermore, this speaks to the film’s commitment not to villanaise either character, but present them as they are: humans, not caricatures of tropes.

With Nora being amagnetic, larger-than-life woman, a force of nature herself, the two of them grapple with a similar sort of insecurity: “Am I enough for her?”

Hae Sung comes to terms with this with a calm resignation. “Seoul really is too small for your ambition,” and he says it with a gentle smile, hints of pride in it. She really is the kind of girl meant for big cities and bigger dreams. She’s confident, charismatic, assertive; he’s quiet, reserved, unambitious. She’s an aspiring artist, always dreaming—of a Nobel award, a Pulitzer, a Tony; he’s an engineer, not looking for anything more. Living alone, she’s carved out schedules, social circles, and a life for herself; living with his parents, he’s been nagged at to wake up after late nights out. The disparities between the two are strikingly evident, Hae Sung paling in comparison with Nora. She is just so much, and Hae Sung, well–how does he fare?

Arthur, on the other hand, wonders aloud, “You make my life so much bigger, and I’m wondering if I do the same for you.” While in bed, he asks if he’s the “answer to [Nora’s] immigrant dream”, if the life they share was the future she’d dreamed of when leaving Seoul, if it’s the life her parents would’ve wanted for her.

“Do I know you?”

Both wonder if they really know Nora. They entered Nora’s life at different points, knew and loved her at different stages. There are years of her life, perhaps, that they aren’t aware of. So when they finally see each other–someone who’d loved a Nora they’d never known–the feeling of inadequacy, of not knowing the whole her, becomes all the more evident.

Arthur isn’t incredibly knowledgeable of Nora’s past in Seoul, and the cultural and language barrier between them remains. Nora speaks in Korean when she dreams, and Arthur confesses (in an achingly beautiful series of lines), “You dream in a language that I can’t understand. It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.” Despite Arthur’s attempts to learn Korean, he sees this gap between them that, to him, he’ll never be able to fully bridge.

Conversely, Hae Sung only ever intimately knew Nora for the first twelve years of her life. Two decades have passed with barely any communication between the two. And while his past feelings seem to be stirred when he sees her, he doesn’t know the present-day Nora. He doesn’t know if she’s the same twelve-year old he loved. Mirroring Arthur, there’s a gap between them that’s far too wide for him alone to cross.

They may have entered Nora’s life at strikingly different times, but they are–in so many ways–similar. When left alone at a bar, despite language barriers, they express their gratitude for each other. There’s mutual respect between them: for loving Nora at different stages in life, for helping her turn either place–Seoul or NYC–into a home.

I’m really glad you came here. It was the right thing to do

Arthur, to Hae Sung

Thank you for introducing me to your husband. I can tell he really loves you.

Hae Sung, to Arthur

Bidding farewell: choosing to stay, choosing to leave

In one of the film’s final sequences, Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung find themselves in a bar in the wee hours of the morning. Nora initially translates for both of them, but mirroring the camera’s eventual exclusion of Arthur from the frame, the conversation progresses into one–only in Korean–between Nora and Hae Sung, the language barrier granting them privacy.

For the first time in twenty-four years, in a bittersweet exchange of feelings–not explicit, but still more honest and telling than ever before–and reminiscences, they acknowledge their past. It only confirms what will come of their final few hours together: nothing life-changing, no sweeping each other off their feet; simply acknowledging and relinquishing themselves to the circumstances that’d pulled them apart–this meeting a mere exception in the midst of it. 

The Na Young you remember doesn’t exist here. […] But that little girl did exist. She’s not sitting here in front of you, but it doesn’t mean she’s not real. Twenty years ago, I left her behind with you.

Nora, to Hae Sung

And Hae Sung realises this. The Na Young he’d loved all those years ago and the Nora in front of him: they’re not the same person. There’s no in-yeon–a binding, red string of fate–between them. However, something must’ve brought them to each other all these years later, to a dimly-lit bar in NYC at 4 a.m., finally speaking to each other in person. 

But her husband’s right next to them. 

There’s no in-yeon between them–at least, there’s not enough–for the future either of them once dreamed of.

He wonders aloud–desperation, longing and resignation all coalescing. If she’d stayed in Seoul, would they have dated? Broken up? Gotten married? Had kids? Raised a family? It’s a series of devastating ‘what if’s that he dwells on, despite knowing that it’s all futile now. The chasm between them is just too wide for childhood affections alone to bridge.

The two, despite a heavy conversation, find lightness in imagining what they might be in other lifetimes: a princess and her guard, two birds on a branch.

“What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life? Who do you think we are then?” Hae Sung wonders, as they wait for his cab to the airport. Well, Nora doesn’t know, and neither does Hae Sung. With a final hug, he says, “See you then.”

Now, this might be an overanalysis, but given the care with which this screenplay was crafted, the line “see you then” instead of any alternatives (e.g. “see you later”) feels deliberate: a promise to, above all else, see each other again in a next life. In another life, maybe they’d be with each other—in a way that doesn’t involve meetings that only last a brief, few days, with decades then between each. In this life, though, it seems that with this final meeting between them, they’re now both on their separate paths to closure; ceasing attempts to make something out of decade-long yearnings, to linger–in vain–on ‘what if’s. From here on, their paths diverge.

All we can hope for, watching Nora walk home and Hae Sung drive away, is that fate is kind enough to let them cross paths again in another lifetime. To let the shared future their twelve-year-old selves had envisioned become a reality.

In their final moments together, they simply face each other, silent.

Nora returns to Arthur, and immediately, she breaks down. It’s a rather symbolic moment of closure, or (involuntary) attempts at closure, I feel. Throughout the film, it’s mentioned that Nora’s a crybaby–something that Arthur hadn’t been aware of. As kids, Hae Sung was the only one Nora cried to–and by extension, he was the only one who ever cared for her. 

But now?

Nora doesn’t cry in front of Hae Sung. As he leaves, she holds it all back. It’s only when she’s with Arthur that she finally cries. Now, it’s him who, in her eyes, cares enough for her to feel comfortable crying around. That ‘privilege’ no longer lies with Hae Sung, who doesn’t know this present version of her. 

It’s simply life, isn’t it: a matter of your heart being carried by different people, in different ways and at different points in life, with the same privileges and responsibilities inevitably being transferred across time. Like watching someone else wipe the tears off your once-best friend’s face when, years ago, you would’ve been the one holding those tissues. Therein lies a relief at knowing they’re still being taken care of, with the slightly bitter aftertaste of not being the one who’s doing it–feelings which Hae Sung, too, harbours.

For the first time, Nora cries in front of Arthur.

Nora’s sobs are muffled by the swell of music. And there, sitting in the theatre, I couldn’t help but feel like the entire film–since Nora’s departure from Korea–has been leading up to this moment. It is one of catharsis for her: remembering the little girl she’d left back in Seoul, two whole decades ago. Tears are finally shed, and she grieves; she grieves the girl she’d deserted, and the girl’s dreams–of marrying her childhood sweetheart, amongst others–that she couldn’t, in her adulthood, fulfil.

To survive in new lands is to grit one’s teeth and keep moving forward. To look to the past is to risk nostalgia-fogged lenses clouding one’s vision, to risk abandoning a renewed life for a past once resolutely deserted. Nora knows this; she’d experienced it once, after all, and then sworn off it. Hence, as she sobs, it feels like she’s finally allowing herself to come to terms with her past, to face two whole decades of repressed feelings.

As the most vivid remnants of her past depart, she–resolutely grounded in the life she’s built for herself in NYC–now straddles her past and present. And with her tears comes a promise of closure–of grieving the past, accepting it, and in many ways, finally saying goodbye.

Want to continue reading? Read Part 3 of our Past Lives review here!

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