Reinventing Identity — and Recalibrating Ambitions — in Celine Song’s ‘Past Lives’

A tale of rekindled romance waxes poetic about providence and reincarnation.

Jon Pack.
Greta Lee, left, and Teo Yoo in 'Past Lives.' Jon Pack.

Playwright Celine Song’s debut feature film, “Past Lives,” is at first glance the tale of an immigrant reuniting with her childhood sweetheart after some two decades apart on different continents. It is just as much about how far she has drifted in the interim, constantly reinventing her identity and recalibrating her life’s ambitions. 

A preoccupation with optics surfaces immediately in the film’s cold open. Bystanders offscreen speculate on the relationship of this Asian woman flanked by an Asian man and a white man at the bar. She’s having a spirited conversation with one, while the other is sidelined, perhaps by a language barrier. How does it look if she’s with the Asian guy? What does it say about her if she’s involved with the white dude? 

Rewind to 24 years earlier in South Korea. Na-young (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae-sung (Yim Seung-min) share a special bond as the top students of their school class. But their budding puppy love is soon truncated. Even before they go on their first playdate, she already has an English name picked out for her impending move with her family to Canada.  

A dozen years pass, and we see Nora (Greta Lee) as she sits in her New York City apartment and, while on the phone with her mother, looks up old Korean contacts on Facebook on a lark. When she learns that Hae-sung (Teo Yoo) has been inquiring about her, she gets so excited that she promptly wraps up the call to drop him a direct message.  

What ensues could be the most romantic montage of a long-distance relationship captured on film in three decades, as the two frequently FaceTime each other despite the time difference. Even so, life is taking them in opposite directions. 

He’s off to China to pursue engineering, while she’s due at an artist residency at Montauk. Seeing as their paths won’t cross again in the near future, Nora decides they need a break. It will be another 12 years before they reconnect in the present day. 

Upon arriving at the cottage on Long Island, Nora inscribes her name on the wall as if literally leaving her mark. She trades up her citizenship again, this time from Canadian to American. In the two decades, she has gradually tempered her goal from Nobel to Pulitzer to Tony. All told, these seem to be the benchmarks she uses in determining her worth. 

The emotions Ms. Song draws are precise, even if they don’t always inform her characters’ decisions. Ms. Lee gives a star-making turn conveying the inner tug of war of a character in two disparate stages in life. 

In the press notes, Ms. Song alludes to personal anecdotes that begot the film. She’s enormously brave to be this introspective, considering the ramifications these disclosures may have on her personal relationships. The film waxes poetic about providence and reincarnation. 

Hae-sung treats Nora, now married, as the one who got away, while Nora’s husband, Arthur (John Magaro), wonders aloud if their marriage is one of convenience. Arthur concedes that one side of Nora’s hyphenated identity may forever elude him due to differences in language and culture.  

Then again, “Past Lives” makes it abundantly clear that feelings don’t count. Hae-sung brings out something in the grown-up Nora, perhaps the childlike wonder she has suppressed, or her Korean self that has been dormant for decades. 

Yet after all she’s done to transform the Korean schoolgirl into an American playwright, is she ready to surrender the wins — complete with an apartment at the East Village — she has amassed over the course of two decades? 

In that sense, “Past Lives” isn’t just uniquely an immigrant story. The fact that Nora hails from South Korea via Canada only underscores how far she’s come, and how much is at stake for the perception of who she is. 

The film affords viewers who’ve ever spent years chasing dreams the chance to pause and ponder — perhaps in the absence of a visitor from the past — whether we’ve meaningfully changed who we are or we’ve only successfully crafted façades. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the latter, as long as it’s what the heart wants. 

The New York Sun

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