Past Lives is one of those films that are so well written and have such a personal touch that they start to feel transcendent. The contemporary story starts to exude a folklore-ish charm, and the characters give the impression that they are archetypal in nature. The sense of heartbreak is obviously a core human emotion, and the great thing about Past Lives is that writer-director Celine Song manages to bring that long-lost feeling of poignant romance to life in this film.
The story of Past Lives revolves around Hae Sung and Nora, two kids who were separated due to circumstances and faced the pangs of unfulfilled love in their own ways. Nora was initially on her own path to becoming a great writer when her parents emigrated from Korea, while Hae Sung remained in Seoul, served in the army, and had his own journey. He tried to contact Nora, and as luck would have it, she found him online, and the possibility of having a connection again fueled the romance that had been cut short 12 years ago. The reunion had its own implications. Hae Sung’s characters will surely tug at the heartstrings of all those who have a love story of their own that they can’t really fully realize. Let’s take a look at Hae Sung’s story and arc and the emotional journey he underwent.
Tae Yoo As Hae Sung
While Nora left with her parents, Hae Sung was left behind in Seoul. He couldn’t cope with her sudden departure. Nora, or Na Young, as he called her, was her best friend, and when her parents decided to leave South Korea for good, it was Hae Sung who was left yearning. They were just kids back then, and yet, even after 12 years, his heart still yearned for Nora. When serving the mandatory military period in the Korean army, he thought about her—where she was and how she was doing. Little did he know that his query on Nora’s dad’s Facebook page would make her message him.
From his point of view, Nora initiated the conversation. She would have never even talked to him if she didn’t want to, but here was her message. The joy was unparalleled. Hae Sung was talking to her after a full 12 years. They are young adults now. There was such excitement in the air that they didn’t even see how much they had changed. There was a relief, like they’d reunited with a long-lost part of them. Hae Sung had plans to come to New York a year and a half later as part of a language exchange program, and then he would have gotten to meet Nora, and what an experience that would be. He wasn’t even thinking that far; he was just thrilled to be able to talk to her via online video chat. It was Nora who brought this conversation up, and then came the heartbreak.
Apparently, she had an awakening and realized that they were acting irresponsibly. These butterflies in her stomach were derailing her career. She was an ambitious girl from the beginning and even a bit cold, as she didn’t seem to feel the sadness of leaving Korea and her best friend behind. But Hae Sung was in similar territory again. Compared to the sadness that he felt when she left, this was a million times more impactful. It was a rejection, coming straight from his childhood sweetheart, and this time, she was an adult, which implied she meant it this time. She had chosen her ambition over him, and Hae Sung had to let her go. But could he really?
He must have gotten the information that Nora married some guy five years later. He was doing a job himself, and seven years had passed as he came to terms with his boring life in Seoul. Hae Sung contacted Nora again when he was coming to New York. This visit was probably his way of processing the fact that the grand romance he had fantasized about was probably never going to be possible to achieve in this life. Also, seeing Nora in person and standing next to her was perhaps as close as he was going to get. He would get much-needed closure, and he would also see for himself how she was doing and whether or not Nora was actually happy with the guy she married. Coming to America was a great cultural shock for him. With a restive look on his face, he waited for Nora, and she was just as stunning as he had imagined. She may be Nora now, but he saw the same Na Young who cried and laughed in front of him when she was little. She accommodated him and showed him around. Her personality even changed a bit as she behaved as he would like her to. The same quirky girl who once wanted to marry him Look how it all turned out! Hae Sung was now in his thirties and unmarried. He has a girlfriend, but it looks like they are on a break, and they will probably break up as he doesn’t earn a huge salary. The reunion was not as romantic as he thought it would be. The perfect moment seemed to have gone, and there was no way Nora would reconfigure her whole life. That’s not how reality works, is it?
Hae Sung was perceived as a heartbroken lover who had crossed seven continents to meet Nora. Even Nora’s husband, Arthur, was sympathetic toward him. It was Arthur who went against convention, so to speak, and invited Hae Sung to a night out. The trio hung out, but it was Hae Sung and Nora’s night. It had to be. Hae Sung had earned it. The courage he now required was to accept that the love he wanted was not his and maybe never was. It was just a painful exercise to keep thinking about the what-ifs. He was lucky to get to see her again. Hae Sung had to realize that he was not Nora’s lover, but perhaps more. He was the guardian of Nora’s childhood self, and it was through his eyes that she recognized who Na Young was. Hae Sung will always be remembered as the boy with whom she spent her beautiful childhood in Seoul.
As far as Hae Sung was concerned, he knew about the concept of ‘In-Yun’, and he could live with the possibility of the next life. If ‘In-Yun’ was true, they would end up getting married in their 8000th reincarnation. Perhaps for moments like these, concepts like ‘In-Yun’ seem useful. Hae Sung had a lot of moving on to do, and as his ‘idealistic’ behavior had been pointed out by Nora herself, maybe he would change and find himself a compatible partner, just as Nora did. Or perhaps he would stay the romantic idealist who believes that first love is also someone’s last and marriage is just a chapter in one’s life. At the end of the day, he had a great story to remember. He will not be able to retell it to someone at a ceremony like people usually do when revealing how they met the love of their lives, but perhaps some things are to be lived and experienced, never to be spoken of again.