There is a line in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona that points to the fact that only when a love story is left unfulfilled can it remain romantic. Past Lives, by Celine Song, is a romantic drama that explores this sentiment and other facets of the postmodern, multicultural world. The story revolves around two people, Nora and Hae-Sung, who lived in South Korea till the age of 12, but then one of their families emigrated to America, and the other was left longing. Nora was the more ambitious one, and it was her family that chose to emigrate. Hae Sung was the boy who was left behind, heartbroken by her departure. It was a young love story in the making that was cut short, but Hae-Sung continued his search and made contact 12 years later.
Nora’s character, written by Celine herself, becomes the vessel to contemplate the many dilemmas of an ambitious person who crosses national and cultural boundaries and becomes a ‘citizen of the world.’ The film talks about issues of marriage, love, and the philosophical implications of the concept of destiny, all in a contemporary way devoid of melodrama. But, in the end, it’s the depth of detail in the writing and the nuanced choices of the actors that make the film so poignant. Let’s take a closer look at Nora’s character:
Greta Lee As Nora
Nora, born Na Young, was always ambitious. The artistic genes were prevalent in her, as both her parents were artists. They had decided to leave their homeland, and the reason was left unclear. The impact of this emigration was quite positive. Nora was on her way to becoming a writer, and while as a kid she wanted to win a Nobel, now she was after the Pulitzer. She knew what her parents had sacrificed and didn’t take this opportunity too lightly. The new identity of ‘Nora’ made her a Korean-American. She learned English pretty quickly, as even when she was on the airplane, she was practicing the new language with her sister. She spoke in Korean only to her mother now.
She didn’t miss Korea. The transition was as smooth as silk. That’s the feeling we get, at least. She had adjusted pretty well and ended up in New York 12 years after her parents left for America. The world was her oyster, and her writing was liked by her boss. Perhaps that Pulitzer was closer than she thought. The praise must have made her even more confident, and it didn’t look like anything was going to get in her way until, one day, she got to know that Hae Sung was trying to contact her. She saw his post online on her father’s Facebook page, asking Nora’s whereabouts. Wow! The boy, whom she broke down in front of when she came second in class and he beat her and got the first rank, was looking for her. Hae Sung was her best friend in school, and Na Young had even thought of marrying him. Ah! The wild imagination of kids Her mother allowed a play date with Hae Sung so she could have wonderful memories of Korea, where she had a great life. Perhaps it helped, as she didn’t miss Hae Sung at all, even though he was visibly depressed. She had no reply for her ‘imagined’ future husband when he said goodbye, probably for the last time, as far as she was concerned.
All these memories must have come flooding back when she saw Hae Sung’s comment. She got all excited about talking with her best friend again. Nora reached out to Hae Sung, and they started to have conversations again, just like in the old days. Well, not exactly, but they had started to reminisce about their beautiful childhood. There was a renewed sense of friendship, and it contained a spark of romance as well. Hae Sung was in Seoul, and she was in New York. She was so eager to talk to him that she started to schedule her days according to his classes. Little by little, Nora’s life was taken over by this new feeling. What was this? Was she falling in love with Hae Sung? Whatever the case, the thought of what was at stake hit her like a truck. She was planning to go to Seoul to meet Hae Sung. She couldn’t let her emotional side defeat her rational one. Her parents had migrated and been through so much, but not for this day, when she would suddenly leave everything hanging in New York and run off to Seoul. She had a full-fledged career here, and being the ambitious girl she always was, she couldn’t let her emotions get the better of her. So without too much consideration, she told Hae Sung one fine day that she would stop talking to him, as this was a time when she could not afford to be distracted.
This was it, perhaps. Childhood fantasies have their limits. Life must go on, and it’s irresponsible to not face the facts. All the rational and logical thoughts had triumphed. Nora continued on her path and met Arthur, a writer, on an artists’ retreat, and they ended up getting married five years later. Her parents’ reaction is not shown, but they must have known that Nora wasn’t necessarily going to marry a Korean guy. She didn’t feel the need to do such a thing. She felt a connection to Arthur, who seemed compatible, and they ended up living together. Marriage was the next logical step. Twelve years passed, and Nora had won neither a Nobel nor a Pulitzer. Arthur was the one who seemed to have continued writing. Hae Sung made contact with her again. This time, he was coming to New York.
Nora wasn’t too flustered by his arrival, although she wasn’t sure whether what he had told her was true. Hae Sung had a job, a girlfriend, and his own life, as far as she knew, and this visit was just a vacation. Arthur, the keen observer, told her that it could just be a pretext for him to come and meet her after so many years. It turned out that he was right. Hae Sung hadn’t forgotten her or his heartbreak. He was still fond of her, and this became apparent to Nora when she met him and showed him around New York. As the meeting progressed, confessions from Hae Sung’s side of how things could have been different changed the nature of the visit. Nora was clear that she loved Arthur, or so she told him. Their marriage wasn’t one where somebody had to walk on eggshells at any time. Nora was clearly preoccupied with Hae Sung, and Arthur understood that she was processing how she truly felt. But it must have tested his patience if she continued to talk about Hae Sung, his Koreanness, and his masculine vibe. Arthur was a writer and a storyteller, and he saw in front of him this epic love story: The past lover literally crosses the seven seas to find his true and only love. What could Nora say to this? Nothing except that she loved him, chose him, and even ended up marrying him. Isn’t this enough proof of her commitment to Arthur? The point is that nobody needed any proof. It was about what she was feeling at that very moment. Was she attracted to Hae Sung? Perhaps. Was she going to destroy her marriage over a fleeting impulse? Most certainly, she would choose not to. Did she love Hae Sung? That was the clincher.
The answer is, in my opinion, that she did love him but couldn’t be with him anymore. The aching romance was enough to fill her soul. The marriage with Arthur must have been a real choice. There is no denying that. But on a macroscopic level, it was dangerously close to feeling like a marriage of convenience. She got her green card after marrying him, and they lived together to save rent. How could this love story compare to the grand romance of Hae Sung’s epic leap to come looking for her in America? Arthur was sensible enough to see all this. He had excelled in his career with her by his side, but he was unsure that he fulfilled her the same way she fulfilled him. In a stereotypical story, Nora would elope with Hae Sung, leaving the Caucasian, non-Korean Arthur behind and starting to live a rooted life in Korea. In this story, however, the concept of ‘In-yun’ was the only respite and reconciliation. In-yun is the belief that two people who end up getting married have had 8,000 past lives together, and marriage is simply a culmination of that. Even a stranger that brushes you on the street is connected to you through several past lives.
Arthur, Nora, and Hae-Sung decided to meet and have a night out before Hae-Sung left for Korea. Everybody was now connected through the In-Yun. There were no grand kisses or dramatic goodbyes when Nora and Hae Sung were waiting on the sidewalk for the taxi that was going to take him to the airport. There was just the silence, which acknowledged that both of them believed that there was a next life, perhaps their 8000th, where they would finally be together. Arthur consoled the sobbing Nora after Hae Sung left. Arthur, playing the ‘good guy,’ would have to be careful not to harbor resentments as the meeting happened according to his consent. Nora would have to watch her feelings, honor her marriage, and tell him the truth if she couldn’t stay with him any longer. All that seems unlikely, as this one meeting was enough, and it was as beautiful an end to a broken thread as they could have managed. Why try to join it and risk ending up with a sore knot? Some tears give more meaning to life than all the laughter in the world.