Past Lives finally pushes the As-Am Diaspora genre into the present

Celine Song's swooning take on being caught between two worlds is a vital step forward for Asian American cinema.


Sylvia Jiho Lee

It’s no secret that Hollywood loves a formula. Tropes like Star-crossed Lovers and The Final Girl help simplify novel or complicated ideas into digestible hooks – the Tinseltown equivalent of mixing medicine into baby food. When Asian-American stories proved marketable to Western audiences in the 90s with Wayne Wang’s Joy Luck Club and Ang Lee’s Father Knows Best trilogy, a new cliché similarly arose to counterbalance its unconventional subject: Asian-Americans as walking oxymorons, the only identity in the world to be labelled with the ethnicities they weren’t enough of. A classic protagonist symbolized the split between ‘East’ and ‘West’ – someone who was too Asian to fully fit in with work colleagues, but too American to adopt their parents’ values as gospel.

The resulting conflict was one that inherently viewed the motherland as an impediment to true assimilation, implying a life perpetually lived in service to either Asian approval or white validation. These films potentially resonated with an earlier generation whose immigration was inherently predicated on conforming to whiteness, but is no longer the case for someone like me, who came of age in the same country with little care for that sort of acceptance. A modern approach to Asian diasporic filmmaking should push self-definition beyond this binary – something I see in Celine Song’s Past Lives.

Unlike its predecessors, Past Lives centers on a lead who subconsciously longs for her homeland, seeing in it a wistful possibility of who she could have been with a more comfortable, homogenous upbringing. When we first meet Nora (played by Greta Lee as an adult and Seung-ah Moon as a child), she is Na Young, a Korean middle-schooler set to permanently leave for Toronto with her family. Asked for a reason for their emigration by her classmates, Na Young declares that she wants to leave, “because Koreans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

Her initial mindset mimics those found in Asian-American films of the past – immigration as a forward-looking action, one validated by whiteness in the form of an institutional award. Little else figures prominently on her radar, including the feelings of a close friend, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo and Seung-min Yim), who feels both stunned and abandoned by his schoolyard crush. Her silence on their final walk home together, however, belies a complex wash of emotions, denoted by a delayed reaction to a physical divergence in their paths. Upon reaching a fork in the road, she forgoes an emotional goodbye and begins to climb up a flight of stairs, a visual nod to her aspirations of social mobility. She pauses after Hae Sung calls out to her, proceeding less determinedly than before, in what becomes a foreshadowing of her homesickness in a decade’s time.

Twelve years pass, and Na Young now lives in New York, having adopted Nora as her anglicized first name. A writing student, she spends her days at seminars and lectures until a stroke of fate reconnects her to Hae Sung over Facebook. Their first video meet is imbued with interest, but more obvious is the unguarded ease and shared understanding that permeate the informal language they use with each other. As their relationship develops, Hae Sung comes to represent something more than a romantic interest, indicated primarily by the conflation of his likeness with images of Korea.

On one call, he takes Nora on an aerial tram ride overlooking Seoul, and the video stream freezes on the city’s skyline. “I miss you,” she murmurs in a moment of vulnerability to Hae Sung, but the translation is more open-ended than the subtitles suggest; her vague phrasing, paired with what she is looking at, can also mean “I miss it.” He feels like an embodiment of home that she can return to between workshops and late nights at the library, locations that function as reminders of why she originally set off for the Americas. With him, she is able to access a more carefree adolescence that was taken in her immigration, emphasizing the Asian-American desire for true community over what remains to be gained from the West.

In a testament to Nora’s agency, she eventually moves on to avoid the grey area that endless homesickness would condemn her to. She rejects passivity with Hae Sung, ending their relationship when their conversations meander into lukewarm promises to visit the other. “I immigrated twice to be in New York. I want to achieve something here, but I’m always sitting around looking up flights to Seoul,” she says, frustrated, in their final call. She grants herself the permission to engage with her new home as it is, not as it should be, the latter depiction of which would bear a vague resemblance to the Asian-American identity cliché.

When she and Hae Sung finally reunite, another symmetric 12 years later, she has moved past the impulse to confer external meaning onto her life at all. “I’ve been meaning to ask, what award have you wanted to win lately?” Hae Sung jokes, a reference to Nora’s prior driving motivator. “I don’t really think about that nowadays…but I guess a Tony?” Though their exchange is meant as pure banter, her response points to a deeper shift in her attitude about worth as it relates to Western endorsement. Waiting for others to give her the green light, irrespective of whichever facet of her identity, wills assimilation at the expense of self-growth.

Because of her unwillingness to be boxed in, Nora is ultimately an Asian-American protagonist for a new generation. Her arc reflects an existence that operates independently of the white gaze, while asking what lessons can be taken from our ethnic heritage without regressing to choice extremism. What results is a portrayal of Asian Americans that offers the most room for individual interpretation- we are not a byproduct of our immigration; we affect it, and it becomes a part of us, rather than define us. Perhaps the cleverness of Past Lives lies in its beginning, which winks at the audience’s instinct to label Nora in her story. Amid overlapping bar chatter from strangers who try to fit her into their conception of the world, she breaks the fourth wall and levels a steady gaze at the over-imposing viewer. Try as they may, no one can ever construct a narrative on her behalf.

Published 1 Sep 2023

Tags: Celine Song Greta Lee Past Lives

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