At a time when everything is fast, and we’re all looking for something to slow us down, which eventually feels like a bore, a movie like Past Lives is the perfect answer. Every little lingering moment of the camera, the little awkward silences and the rawness of this film keep you glued to the screen. It’s been a really long time since such a love story graced our screens, and if you haven’t yet, go see this fascinating film. For a debut film, Celine Song makes a compelling case at such a young age, creating a spectacle out of the ordinary. Added to that, it has that A24 quality that we love so much, making it truly a work of art. Simplicity at its best, let’s have a look at what happens in Past Lives.
What Happens In The Film?
In the present day, a woman and two men sit at a bar, chit-chatting. Across from them, some people try to figure out what their relationships might be; the woman and one of the men are Asian, while the other man is white. We then cut to 24 years earlier, and a couple of middle school kids are walking back home. Hae-Sung asks his friend Na-Young why she’s crying, and she doesn’t answer. It seems he’s managed to come first in the grade, and Na-Young is second. The ambitious girl is upset that she’s not at the top of the class, and Hae-Sung reminds her that this is only the first time this has happened. Na-Young is moving countries with her family. Her mother wonders if she wants to go on a date with Hae-Sung before she leaves, and Na-Young agrees. They play happily as their mothers watch on, both thrilled to be in each other’s company. As they go back home, they hold hands in the backseat of the car. When Hae-Sung finds out that Na-Young is leaving town, he’s extremely upset, but instead of letting on, he just tells her to do well there. It’s a fork in the road, and while Hae-Sung walks a straight path, Na-Young climbs up, a symbol of how their lives will be now.
We quickly jump 12 years again, and Hae-Sung is doing his mandatory military service, whereas Na-Young is living in New York City after having immigrated to Canada in middle school. Cry-baby Na-Young doesn’t cry anymore. She just works hard, climbs higher, and hopes to become a screenwriter, just like her father. On a free day, Na-Young decides to look up her childhood friends just to see what they’re doing right now. She remembers her crush, Hae-Sung, and looks him up. To her surprise, he’s written a post on her father’s Facebook page looking for Na-Young. Fascinated by the post, she writes him a message. She’s surprised by his reply, and they decide to Skype each other. From one awkward video call of “How are yous,” it becomes a daily thing. Even with 12 formative years lost between them, there’s something comforting between the two of them, and they are always excited to speak to each other, even emailing in their spare time. Soon, they begin to wonder when they can see each other, with Hae-Sung making plans to figure out how he can go to New York and Na-Young making plans on how she can go to Seoul.
After some time, Na-Young realizes she’s spending more of her time looking for tickets to Seoul than on her work. She tells Hae-Sung that they should stop the calls for a bit. She’s got an artist residency, and she needs to concentrate on that. When they were younger, Na-Young said she wanted a Nobel Prize, and that’s why she was going abroad. Twelve years later, Hae-Sung asked her if she still wanted that award, but she said she wanted a Pulitzer this time. Na-Young has worked really hard to get to where she is by emigrating twice and finally reaching New York. The fact that she desires to go back to Seoul is what terrifies her, and that is why she wants to stop talking to Hae-Sung for a bit. He understands but also feels heartbroken about it.
Na-Young meets a man named Arthur at the residency, and they get together and fall in love. Na-Young is Nora in America, but she was Na-Young only to Hae-Sung. Even her mother had stopped calling her that a long time ago. Na-Young tells Arthur about “In-yeon”, a word specifically related to the fate of two people meeting each other. According to Buddhist philosophy, even if two people brush against each other on the street, they may have been something to each other in their past lives. If two people were married, it meant they had 8,000 layers of fate between each other. While it’s just a story to Nora, she might believe it in her heart.
Nora and Arthur get married, while Hae-Sung sees a woman back in Korea. And just like that, 12 years have passed. Nora is still working hard at her dream, and Arthur has already published books. They live in a tiny, cozy apartment in the East Village when Hae-Sung finally decides to visit New York.
Is Hae-Sung And Na-Young’s Relationship In-Yeon?
After all those years, when Na-Young and Hae-Sung meet, they’re stunned to see each other. From being a memory to a video on the screen to finally seeing each other in person. At this point, Hae-Sung and his girlfriend are on a break. Na-Young calls him idealistic and says it will be difficult for him to be married if he continues to live that way. At home, Na-Young tells her husband that she finds herself feeling less Korean when she’s with Hae-Sung. She also finds him “masculine” in a very Korean way. It’s rather adorable how Arthur feels jealous of her relationship with Hae-Sung while still supporting her urge to meet him. Even if that means he is on the losing side. Na-Young even admits to Arthur that he suspected Hae-Sung went to New York just to see her.
Arthur tells Na-Young that if this were a story about Na-Young’s life, he would be the villain, and Hae-Sung would be the ex-lover to come rescue her. It’s a really truthful conversation about how insecure Arthur feels that a beautiful woman like Na-Young is in love with him and has stayed with him this long. Is this really the dream she had when she immigrated? Is the fact that they have similar interests enough for them to be In-Yeon? Na-Young reminds him that she loves him very dearly and she chose this life for herself with him. While boarding a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, Hae-Sung asks Na-Young again what prize she wants this time, and she replies, “Tony”. She’s still just the same ambitious girl from back in the day, but she just doesn’t cry anymore because there’s no one to comfort her as Hae-Sung did. Finally, they meet Arthur together, and after an awkward exchange of hellos in each other’s languages, they head out to a bar.
After some small talk with Na-Young translating, Hae-Sung talks to Na-Young for a bit. He tells her that he sees now that Korea would’ve been too small a place for her, and he’s glad she emigrated. He wasn’t keen on liking Arthur, but he could see that he loved her very much. Seeing them together makes it certain that Na-Young was always meant to leave Hae-Sung, whereas she is meant to stay with Arthur. It was their fate that had led them up to this point, and that’s alright. Na-Young tells Hae-Sung that the little girl he knew back in the day was left behind with him when Na-Young moved. They ponder what they might have been to each other in their past lives because, considering they’re meeting after 20 years in the same city like this, it has to be In-yeon.
When Arthur pays the bill, and it’s just Hae-Sung and him, Hae-Sung apologizes for having a conversation alone with Na-Young. Arthur understands, though, and tells him it was the right thing to do to meet her there after all those years. It’s also fate that they met each other. In the end, it comes time for Hae-Sung to leave, and he says goodbye to Arthur. Na-Young walks him to his Uber, and while they wait, they just stare at each other. Possibly taking in the other person one last time. It’s satisfying enough knowing that they were a piece of comfort for each other. Hae-Sung gives her a hug and puts his bags in the Uber. But before he leaves, he calls out to Na-Young just as he did 24 years ago when he said goodbye to her. It’s time for another goodbye, but this won’t be the last, either. He wonders out loud if they’ve come this far in this life; maybe in their next, they’re already something else to each other. While they don’t know what that is, they’re looking forward to seeing each other then.
After all this time, Na-Young walks back home alone, and when she reaches the stairwell where Arthur is waiting for her, she bursts into uncontrollable tears. He gives her a hug and consoles her, taking her up the stairs just as she had left Hae-Sung behind back then. Soon enough, she won’t be thinking, “What if”. Both Hae-Sung and Na-Young have found closure. Maybe the comfort that swallows us as we watch this film surrounded by other audience members sharing our smiles and laughter is also a kind of In-yeon.