In a masterful scene from Celine Song’s Past Lives, the husband, Arthur, asks his wife if he is everything she ever imagined in her life. Not only does he ask this question as an individual, but he also wants to know if Nora, who is a Korean immigrant, is satisfied with the kind of life she has in America. He meticulously lays down all the essential facts about their lives: him being a moderately well-to-do American writer of Jewish heritage, their living in a tiny NYC apartment, and their entire relationship starting twelve years ago at an artist residency only because both of them happened to be single at that point in time. There is an obvious context to this scene, of course. Arthur is trying to evaluate himself against Hae Song, Nora’s childhood sweetheart from Korea, who has suddenly reappeared in her life. The major takeaway from the scene is Arthur’s acceptance of the fact that his story can’t compete with that of Hae Song, who has literally traveled across the world only to see the girl he loves for just one time—who happens to be married to Arthur.
For most work assignments, I try to follow a standard process where I imagine sitting outside a window and closely studying what is happening outside. My role is that of an observer who is not a part of the world and certainly not related to any character. The purpose of doing this is to analyze what I am seeing with a clear head. But sometimes, the line gets blurry, and I find myself outside of that imaginary window. That happened quite a lot while watching Past Lives. It is hard not to relate to Celine Song’s debut feature. The characters seem like someone you know or someone you could see every day. The emotions they go through remind you of things you have always felt. The way the film explores the universal language of longing and love only makes it far more relatable. Naturally, it is hard not to adore Past Lives.
Speaking of which, let us talk about the two kinds of love that can be seen throughout the entirety of Past Lives. We endure the pain when Hae Song and Na Young get separated early in the movie. Our hearts swoon when Hae Song finally finds Na Young on Facebook twelve years later. She now goes by the name Nora Moon, but Hae Song insists on calling her Na Young only. We keep rooting for the star-crossed lovers as we see their budding romance. But as fate would have it, the two can’t meet, and it is impossible for Nora to go on like this. A weeping Hae Song lets the love of his life go without even professing his feelings. Trying his best to hide the tears, he assures Nora that it’s okay because they are not exactly in an official relationship. His words pierce through us, leaving us heartbroken as we say goodbye to Hae Song, who remains only as a digital image inside Nora’s head.
It is quite bold of Song to introduce Arthur’s character at a point where we have already invested ourselves in Nora and Hae Song’s romance. For Nora, Arthur comes off as a river by which she quietly sits, in stark contrast to Hae Song, who is like an all-consuming wave. Twelve more years go by in a jiffy, and in another superbly crafted scene, Nora and Arthur are introduced as husband and wife, and they make for a very regular, basic couple. They are quite content with what they have, which is not too much, but that doesn’t seem to bother either of them. It is adorable to see Arthur speaking in Korean and Nora responding in English while the couple are trying to decide what to eat while lovingly holding each other on their bed. In many ways, the relationship mirrors the one we saw in Jim Jarmusch’s “Patterson,” except this one is far more real.
But Hae Song has finally arrived in New York, and Nora is about to see him. Now a man in his mind, Hae-Soon is reintroduced as a flag-bearer of everything ordinary, as he would describe himself. He even mentions not getting married to his girlfriend (and subsequently taking a break from her) thanks to his ordinary job and earnings. But there is one particular thing that sets him apart. This is a person who didn’t hesitate to travel all the way to New York from Seoul only to see the one girl he ever truly loved. Sure, we do see Hae Song meeting a woman in between, who eventually became his girlfriend, but that doesn’t take away anything about his grand gesture. Here we have an ordinary person with a heart of infinite size who is holding onto a romance that will forever remain unfulfilled. And by making Arthur the one recognizing it, this movie effectively challenges the notion of the genre that pits all the regular, nine-to-five men of the world against the dreamy, charismatic men in a losing battle.
Arthur is a writer who is living in the greatest city in the world, and whose book has done fairly well, but he is falling short in the context of sweeping romance in front of an extremely basic Korean man who is not even fluent in English. But Arthur’s love for his wife is evident from how he reacts to the whole thing, with an extremely understanding, rational state of mind. He does not try to hide the jealousy he feels but also acknowledges what Hae Song has done for love. When Nora takes Hae Song to their home, it is Hae Song who is concerned about how Arthur will feel. But Arthur not only manages to hide his sadness and confusion; he also makes a genuine attempt to make Hae Song feel at home. In fact, Arthur’s earnestness makes Hae Song confess that he can’t help but like him, albeit only in Korean.
Where Past Lives triumphs is in the way it ends—without any significant action by any of the characters. Hae Song and Nora never say the three magical words. Yet, when they parted ways, our hearts broke into millions of pieces. And so does Nora’s. But seeing Arthur comfort her, we also experienced some healing. Instead of choosing a side, the story ends at a point where a lot can still happen, but it probably won’t. As Hae Song’s Uber crosses the Brooklyn Bridge, we keep wondering if he will ever come back while feeling the lingering sadness, which is going to stay for a long, long time.