Celine Song's feature debut is a tender exploration of multiethnic romance, complimented by nuanced performances from Greta Lee and John Magaro.
“You dream in a language I can’t understand,” Arthur (John Magaro) tells Nora (Greta Lee) when commenting on how she only sleep talks in Korean. The two are nested in the comfort of their marital bed, where long unspoken reservations can come out at last, the tender openness of their communication a testament to the loving nature of the relationship.
I dream in a language my husband can’t understand too. The open vowels of my native Portuguese are at once vast and impenetrable to a man raised within the tight confines of English. The dreams we now share linger in the murky limbo that permeates cross-cultural relationships – the abyss we once believed to have bridged through the wonders of modern globalisation contracting and expanding as the years go by.
The thorny nuances of multiethnic relationships are deeply understood by Celine Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives. Nora – born in Seoul as Na Young – emigrates to Canada at the age of 12, leaving behind her best friend and first love Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Another twelve years go by before Hae Sung is able to track Nora down on social media, her Westernised moniker a nagging impediment to their virtual reunion.
Because life rarely spares the well-meaning, many more nagging impediments stand between the pair, two lovers who never were, caught in the rueful misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The first act of Past Lives is dedicated to laying out the board for a game that only properly begins to unspool when the slightly overstretched set-up is fleshed out, with Song introducing Arthur right after Nora and Hae Sung drift apart again as young adults, this time out of the realisation hope is far from enough emotional subsistence.
Arthur walks into Nora’s life in her dreams, quite literally. He lands at a reclusive writing retreat as Nora, already settled, takes a siesta, his arrival framed through her bedroom window. The two quickly evolve from pleasantries to open hearted confessions as the sun goes down and, by the time the darkness of countryside nights envelops the two, it is as if their story has begun to be written in the stars hovering up above. They kiss tenderly just moments after Nora tells Arthur about the Korean concept of in-yun, the idea that even the most casual brush with another being is the byproduct of ties shared in past lives.
If the romantic inklings of such mythology fuelled their young love, the sober jadedness of maturity has Arthur reframe their first meeting as mere bourgeois serendipity – an observation drenched in earnestness instead of cruelty. In this encompassing of how chance is a kinder helping hand than destiny, Past Lives unravels as a marvel, cemented in a rare balance of wit and grief beautifully embodied by Magaro and Lee.
Nora’s fascination with her childhood friend, who at once reinforces and negates her heritage, is no mystery to her husband. When Hae Sung eventually makes it to New York after another twelve years, there is no metaphorical white horse that can rock the sturdy foundations that ground the relationship at the centre of Song’s debut – not the one between the star-crossed-lovers, but the one between two people who choose to live a life rooted in the serenity of the present, not the operatic promises of the past.
Published 20 Feb 2023
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