“Past Lives”: Reminiscences on being human–in motion, and in love (Part 3)

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Chandrasekaran Shreya (24S06A)

Missed Part 1 of this series? Access it here!

Missed Part 2 of this series? Access it here!

Technical musings: parallels in visual and verbal narratives

This, without a doubt, is one of my favourite techniques in filmmaking: where intentional, deliberate cinematographic choices are made to drive the narrative forward, complementing the story’s verbally-driven narrative.

When Hae Sung and Nora meet in person for the first time, they walk to the bay area, overlooking a sea. Surrounding them are many duos–except, they’re not just duos, they’re couples. To the unassuming eye, one might assume Hae Sung and Nora, too, to be a couple, blending in with the crowd. But that’s merely wishful thinking, a what-could-have-been more fitting for, perhaps, another lifetime of theirs. In this life, they are simply two distant friends.

Behind them, couples. (Please ignore the boom mic in the frame.)

In the film’s last sequence, we follow the duo as they leave Nora’s home, walking from right to left to wait for Hae Sung’s cab. And once he leaves, Nora walks back home, left to right. The directions in which they walk–perhaps intentionally–mimic that of a timeline. When they walk together, they’re literally walking back into the past, towards the two twelve-year-olds who’d loved each other. 

Compounding this is the brief cutaway as present-day Hae Sung calls out to Nora one last time: a cutaway back to their past, where their shared path back home finally diverges, harking back to their last moment together in Seoul. Except, now, it’s night-time, and in both of Hae Sung’s gazes lie the same, lingering melancholy. With the cut, too, lies the implication that just as their childhood selves waited twenty-four years to see each other again, their adult selves may not meet again for a long, long time. 

A parallel of their earlier departure, now by nighttime.

And as Nora walks back home, back into the present she’s chosen to live, the life she’s decided to carve out for herself, we see the deliberateness of her actions: of choosing, with finality, to bid her past love farewell and return to the present love she’s chosen for herself. 

Hae Sung’s departure might have left her in tears in her husband’s arms, but to be vulnerable with her husband is the choice she’s made. And with the door’s closure comes, perhaps, Nora’s desire for closure: for the young girl she used to be, the boy she used to love, and her past.

The film’s cinematography, as a whole, is nothing short of gorgeous. Visually, the film draws us deep into the headspace of these characters, amplifying their feelings, words and body language. Frame compositions and lighting choices deliberately mirror the atmosphere and feelings of the characters, breathing vivid, new dimensions of life into them.

The film’s portrayal of loneliness, hopelessness and restlessness–all through Hae Sung’s eyes–I feel, is sublime; two shots alone sufficiently convey this.

Hae Sung, the night he lands in NYC.

First: against the floor-to-ceiling window of his hotel room, we see, at once, the lonely, flickering lights of buildings in the distance, and Hae Sung, contemplative, facing the city alone.

Hae Sung, still dressed up, after spending a day with Nora.

In a similar shot, the camera is trained on him. He is slumped in a corner, posture defeated and gaze downturned after spending the day with Nora. The lampshade beside him is the scene’s only source of practical light, and it casts a warm glow on him, isolating him from the near-pitch-black city behind him. 

Indeed, this might not be a particularly impressive feat; cities by night are, at this point, almost a fixture in any film about loneliness. But, the fact that these scenes carry so much weight–both in what’s said and unsaid–shows the restraint and care that went into sincerely portraying these character’s feelings.

Coupled with the actor’s subtle yet telling body language, these two shots alone are enough for us to both explicitly understand what Hae Sung’s feeling in NYC, but also leave us contemplating why he’s feeling this way. It leaves us to face and tussle with the complexities of his emotions, that even he, perhaps, might not be able to uncover.

Another beautiful, visual parallel in the film: Above, a younger Hae Sung–with Na Young, asleep, leaning on his shoulder–as they are driven home from a date. Below, an older Hae Sung, alone, as he’s driven away from his hotel, and away from New York City.

The actors, too, do these characters justice (beyond words). Careful, intentional choices in body language and verbal delivery present us with real, believable human beings. In fact, it almost feels like there are two distinct, parallel narratives running alongside each other–one driven by body language, and the other driven by dialogue–only converging at the film’s end, where what’s expressed in silent gazes and tight smiles is finally verbally expressed.

In all their insecurities, complexities and uncertainties, we see fully-fleshed out characters, each of their stories treated with a different, but equal, gravity. No one’s the hero, no one’s the villain, as is easy to characterise in love stories. Instead, owing to the actors’ deliberately empathetic treatment of their characters, all we see is three human beings, sincere in their attempts to grapple with their individual circumstances.

(From left to right) The film’s main trio: Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), Nora/Na Young (Greta Lee), Arthur (John Magaro).

I especially adored actor Teo Yoo’s portrayal of a grown-up Hae Sung. So much of his character’s melancholy, longing and lingering hopes are conveyed not through words, for the most part, but through silences: in the way he carries himself, in where he chooses to make or break eye contact, and the heart of it all–in his eyes, where a wealth of his undelivered emotions lie.

A faraway gaze.

With a deep sense of empathy and a thoroughly human lens guiding the actors’ direction, and the film’s screenplay and cinematography, the heart of the film’s story and its characters is undoubtedly done justice.

Love–it is not static; and it can, and will be, reinvented

On the MRT ride back home, I began reminiscing the moments I’d shared with people whom I’d once held incredibly dear, but eventually drifted away from. There were no bitter partings, venom-laced arguments or tense fall-outs. Life simply ran its course, and we found our paths diverging. 

No matter how much I wanted to hold onto those relationships, much like Nora and Hae Sung, I’d been spending my days and nights preoccupied with thoughts of ‘what if’s–what if I’d simply fought harder, showed them how deeply I cared about our friendship–and putting life on hold, for possibilities that I, in my cowardice, could only ever mull over but never attempt to make a reality.

I do see them around sometimes. While I’m instantly overcome by a strong urge to simply go up to them and pick up from where we’d last left off, I pause. Because it’d have been months, sometimes years since we’d last spoken–and that, surely, is enough for someone to change. I don’t really know them anymore, do I? The person I miss, the relationship I’m mourning–they’re not really still there, are they? And contextualising my thoughts with Hae Sung and Nora’s relationship: I don’t have the privilege of seeing them cry anymore, do I?

I find myself in a restless tussle between the past and the present, wondering if there are ways of bridging the two to give rise to a future that’d bring at least some semblance of satisfaction. But, as this film illustrates, this isn’t always possible. And with a heavy heart, I’ve come to accept that too.

Past Lives left me not with a sense of gratification, but a lingering bittersweetness. A brutally honest but tender acknowledgement of how some relationships–no matter how strong, how promising they seem–come and go. 

There’s no one at fault, really: not yourself, not the person who once used to be your best friend, not the new person by their side who’s occupying your shoes now. It’s simply how life is, how relationships are. And all we can do–with time, distance, and long nights of rumination–is to find comfort in knowing that, at some point, you loved someone, as did they. 

Perhaps it doesn’t matter as much that they aren’t around anymore; what does, is, that at some point, in those shared moments together–of tenderness, exuberance, restlessness–love had settled deep into your bones. It was all that you could ever feel around them in moments that would’ve, at the time, been your present. And those few moments, alone, are sometimes enough.

Love is not static. Indeed, some relationships will come to an end. But love does not begin and end with these. It can and will find its course again–always, always running through new lives, new people, and new beginnings. 

So, just as we may mourn our pasts and tie ourselves down to the inevitable, unanswered what-ifs, we can, too, look at our presents (in the people around us, in the places we’re led to, in the circumstances we find ourselves in) and find a space for love–a new sort, perhaps–to bloom.

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