August 2023

Arts & Letters

Close encounters of the shared kind: ‘Past Lives’

By Shane Danielsen

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee in Past Lives

Korean debut filmmaker Celine Song’s elegant three-part love story embraces the Buddhist idea of encounters over many incarnations

Three people sit at a bar: two men and a woman. Two of them are Korean; the other – one of the men – is not. The way they’re talking suggests familiarity, but they’re too far away (from the camera, and our fixed point of view) to make out their words; the exact nature of their relationship, therefore, remains ambiguous. Are they friends? Work colleagues? Is it perhaps a couple entertaining a visitor?

It’s an intriguing set-up. And to add to its ingenuity, the scene is “narrated” by another, offscreen couple, who are speculating on precisely these questions – the first of this film’s many disjunctions of sound and image. (“Maybe they’re tourists, and the white guy is their guide?” “Drinking at 4am?” “Yeah, you’re right. That makes no sense.”) After a moment, the Korean woman – smiling a little sadly now – looks up, directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall… And at once we cut, slipping backwards through both time and space to Seoul in 1998, to find a girl and boy, Na Young and Hae Sung, walking home from school. She’s crying, he’s trying to console her. Our story begins.

I’m always fascinated by ways into a narrative. And Past Lives (screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival this month, before opening nationally on August 31) offers a textbook example of how to grab a viewer, the kind of bravura opening gambit that’s all the more noteworthy for its restraint. It’s not flashy or attention-seeking, just smart, confident and compelling – and as such, entirely of a piece with its maker’s achievement. A 34-year-old playwright making her film debut, Celine Song displays a remarkable fluency with cinematic language. She’s helped, admittedly, by some talented collaborators – her cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, who also shot Steve McQueen’s anthology Small Axe, is one of the best new-ish DoPs around – but the prevailing sensibility here, the combination of quotidian realism and metaphysics, is entirely her own.

Na Young is crying, we learn, because Hae Sung got a higher grade on a class assignment, which tells you pretty much all you need to know about her character. (Barely 12, she breezily declares that she intends to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Years later, she’s modified that ambition, but only a little: now a Pulitzer will suffice.) She is, in other words, intensely ambitious, but also slightly unsettled, because her parents, both artists, have recently decided to leave South Korea and resettle in Toronto.

Before they go, however, and because her mother knows how much she adores Hae Sung (“He’s manly,” Na Young tells her, with cheerful insouciance, “I’ll probably marry him”), she arranges a last playdate for the pair in the park around Gyeongbokgung Palace, “to make good memories for her”. The sequence ends with a shot of the pair in the back of a car, being driven home as night falls. While Na Young sleeps on his shoulder, Hae Sung gazes sorrowfully out the window, as if contemplating his future without her. Their subsequent farewell, on a street corner near their respective houses, with a determinedly casual “Bye”, is little short of heartbreaking.

Twelve years later, we find Na Young living alone in Manhattan. She’s now called Nora and, like her creator, is an up-and-coming playwright. One day, while talking to her mother on the phone, they begin discussing what’s become of old classmates from home, and her mind flashes at once to Hae Sung. (Though she can’t at first recall his name.) She looks him up on Facebook and sees that he’d recently left a message on her father’s page, wanting to get in touch with her. So she messages him, and quickly finds herself plunged into a long-distance Skype relationship of surprising intensity – a sweet, dangerous distraction that threatens to upend both their lives, until finally, reluctantly, Nora cuts it short.

Another 12 years pass. Now she’s married to Arthur, an American she met at a writers’ retreat. (His breakthrough novel is titled Boner, one of the film’s best gags.) Hae Sung, meanwhile, having recently broken up with his long-time girlfriend, has reached out to Nora once again. He’s planning a holiday in New York, he tells her, and would love to catch up with the friend he hasn’t seen in more than two decades.

This tripartite structure works well, making the most of each act and lending this intimate story a broad, almost novelistic sweep. But it’s Song’s treatment of the material that makes her first feature so extraordinary. Her approach is patient, her tone almost contemplative; she seeds details discreetly and waits for them to bear fruit. Yet at the same time she makes some unexpected, uniformly shrewd choices in how both individual scenes and the broader plot play out, wrong-footing our expectations at every turn. Her craft is refined – with its honeyed palette and finely detailed sound design, this is nothing if not an elegant picture – but so understated in its methods that her achievement risks becoming almost invisible. That is, until the very end, when the story’s internal rhymes become apparent, and the film fairly wallops you with its cumulative emotional force. There’s a second scene in a park with Nora and Hae Sung, a reunion this time rather than a separation, before we return, inevitably, to that opening scene in the bar – by now understanding fully who these people are, both in themselves and to one another.

For some time, in these pages and online, I’ve been advocating for the importance of human-scale storytelling – the possibility that, when done well (and make no mistake, this film does it unusually well), these small “domestic narratives” can have at least the same emotional force as any high-stakes, big-budget drama. Most of us will never disarm a bomb or perform a life-saving operation, or drive a 1970 Dodge Charger in slow-motion off a cliff (though sometimes, I admit, the thought is tempting). But virtually all of us will fall in love, and most of us will experience heartbreak. We will make sacrifices and occasionally be rewarded, extend our trust and perhaps be betrayed, eventually come to rue some of our choices. For better or worse, these are the landmarks in our lives, and it seems somewhat bizarre not to want to see those things represented onscreen in the name of shared human experience.

The challenge, of course, is to make this familiar material feel new and revelatory – to communicate what Don DeLillo once called “the shock, the power of an ordinary life”. But Song has achieved that here, in this wise, tender, achingly romantic film, which both draws from autobiography and extends it, to deliver something universal and profound.

Her direction of actors is excellent, from the juvenile cast (Moon Seung-ah and Leem Seung-min, each superb as the young Nora and Hae Sung) to their adult counterparts: Greta Lee (Natasha Lyonne’s co-star in Russian Doll) and Teo Yoo (last seen in Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave). Lee, in particular, is superb, her sharp intellect bringing a welcome astringency to Nora. Like Park Ji-min in last year’s Return to Seoul – another great film about disaporal yearning – she portrays a prickly, complicated heroine, unafraid to risk forfeiting the audience’s sympathy.

But it’s John Magaro, as Nora’s husband, who has perhaps the toughest role. Arthur is nebbish-y and somewhat self-obsessed – he’s basically a man-shaped issue of McSweeney’s – but he’s no fool. Nor is he oblivious to what’s going on; he senses Hae Sung’s longing for his wife immediately, at an almost molecular level. Yet at the same time, he’s generous enough to understand that he’s not the main character in their story, and decides to modify his behaviour accordingly. He doesn’t want to see himself, he tells Nora, as “the evil white American husband, standing in the way of destiny”.

That final word is the key; it’s here that the film gains its deeper, philosophical dimension. Alert to the divided nature of the émigré, Song amusingly sets out the differences between Hae Sung and the now-Americanised Nora, with her brash self-confidence and rusty Korean. (Appropriately for an immigrant story, the pair even ride a ferry around the Statue of Liberty.) But the cultural element, you sense, is less important to the filmmaker than the intellectual one, and specifically, the difference between Eastern and Western concepts of fate.

I met my wife on a bridge in Budapest back in 2006, on a last-minute trip I did as a favour to a friend – all because someone else, some guy I never met and whose name to this day I still don’t know, had broken his hip five days earlier and couldn’t fly. On the morning in question, I decided, on the spur of the moment, to cross the Erzsébet Bridge rather than the Chain Bridge, despite the latter being a good half a kilometre closer to my hotel. The Danube was at its highest level in 128 years, thanks to floods earlier that month across the Central European basin. I wanted to see the swollen river – and so, fortunately, did she.

Pure chance, in other words. The random intersection of two separate vectors. Yet most humans, being storytelling animals, tend to be unnerved by this reading. We seek patterns and causality because the possibility of an arbitrary, rudderless cosmos, one where people clash blindly and accidentally, like meteors, is too much to bear. Better, therefore, to impose an order upon events, even in retrospect – hence religion, which is just another form of storytelling. (I’m not immune from doing it myself, idly re-tracing the chain of separate decisions that brought me to that particular spot at that particular moment on that particular day.) Whether we choose to call it God or fate, it’s comforting to believe that, to quote the great Romantic poet Taylor Swift, there’s an “invisible string”, linking each of us to our predetermined Other.

But Hae Sung and Nora each invoke the Korean term inyun, which is a slightly different thing. Derived from Buddhism, the concept posits that every encounter between two souls is actually the outcome of many other, preceding interactions – the countless meetings or near-meetings (because these count too, apparently) one has had across one’s various incarnations. A kind of blockchain karmic affinity. Thus, their attraction to each other now. (Perhaps I was once a bird,” Nora tells Hae Sung sadly, “and you were the branch I landed on.”)

In this telling, it’s therefore less a question of whether Nora and Hae Sung are meant to be together, than of simple bad timing. (And tellingly, their first plan to meet up, in the film’s second act, is waylaid by clashing schedules: Nora has her writers’ retreat in Montauk to attend, while Hae Sung is going to Shanghai to learn Chinese.) If you believe that this life represents only one possible outcome of many, then hope springs literally eternal: there’s always the chance, one day, to get it right. But that possibility in turn raises a further question, which this film leaves tactfully unresolved. Whether it exalts this iteration of their love story, or diminishes it, is something every viewer will have to decide for themselves.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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