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Past Lives (2023) – Pathos of Destiny and Catharsis of What Ifs

Past Lives (2023) – Pathos of Destiny and Catharsis of What Ifs

  • This article is spoiler free!

Past Lives (2023) brings you through a cinematic journey of smothering ‘what ifs’ that frequent and torment what feels like countless lifetimes of yearning and regrets. A journey duly encapsulated by the double entendre chosen by its debuting director, Celine Song. Seemingly a simple and passive, all-too-familiar tale of childhood crushes, the film transcends into exploring various realms of human experience.

A Cinematic Navigation of Love and Loss

Song steers the audience through a hyperconscious and frank screenplay. Within the words and visuals, token capsules of human experiences usually shared in secret through hushed whispers are deftly exposed for all to witness. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro, a divine trio, deliver a stellar production reminiscent of ancient tragedies. Song atones her viewers with her version of poetic justice, which is attainable, sincere and realistic. A fortunate tragedy of love, innocence, yearning, culture, identity, loss, patience, and desire – lost, replaced or gained?

The scene opens in medias res amidst a dimly lit New York speakeasy. The perspective of an observer peering upon a trio is imposed onto the viewer. Intruding on a private moment, the faceless speaker remarks to an unrevealed listener, “Who do you think they are to each other?”

The Entanglement of Past Lives

Greta Lee is first introduced as the character of Na Young, a twelve-year-old Korean girl. Later, she emigrated to Canada, where she adopted the name of Nora Moon. These names remain significantly separate throughout the film. Teo Yoo plays Hae Sung, a classmate of Na Young’s back in Korea. As children, they shared a dear friendship that fate lost. As adults, their lives circled back to each other, and they ascribed in-yun as the reason they were brought back together.

‘If you leave something behind, you gain something too.’

John Magaro portrays Arthur Zaturansky, a Jewish American writer. Nora and Arthur meet on a writer’s retreat, where they talk endlessly. Enraptured by Arthur, she shares with him the concept of in-yun. Yun believes in Korean beliefs centred around reincarnation and fate. It attributes karmic purpose to every person you meet and every interaction cultivated. Candidly, she reveals that Koreans would broach this notion of in-yun when flirting to make someone swoon with infatuation. Her honesty to Arthur subtly announces her departure from Korean culture. Eventually, they marry and move to New York, and Nora succeeds as a playwright.

In a casual bout of reminiscing with her mum, Nora scours Facebook through time capsules of her past as Na Young. Finally, she chances upon Hae Sung and delights in the nostalgia of her childhood crush, laughing at the thought that she once believed she would marry him. She reached out to him after seeing that he was looking for her a while back, and the two decidedly reconnect. Arthur watches this past connection between the two entangle again in real-time whilst feeling like a stranger incapable of sharing in the affinity between the two.

The Catharsis of What Ifs

This masterpiece gently navigates us through the internal conflicts within the individual characters. They double as embodiments of the conflicting voices which push and pull within us. Through reuniting, Nora is challenged by Hae Sung’s renewed presence in her life. All the what ifs, buts and maybes.

Celine Song captures the essence of human longing and regret through silences that go on for a second too long, shared reflections of doubt between furrowed brows and touches that drag along the skin, finally pulling away when it begins to burn. Every touch signifies fear of separation, and every drawn-out second, a silent refusal to let the ‘what ifs’ go just yet. In collaboration with Shabier Kirchner, the cinematographer, the visuals inflict a gut-wrenching emotional purge as the film advances. Yet, by the end, the viewer is rewarded with an extraordinary and healing closure.

‘What if this is a past life, and we are already something else to each other in our next life?’

Beyond the beautiful piece of cinema that Celine Song has gifted us, she has also given us an enigmatic script filled with nuance. It is no wonder how Song won Best Indie, Romance and Screenplay. The script is so characteristically human, where everything important is left unsaid, cowering between the lines – unread.

An image of two characters in the Past Lives film trailer.
© A24

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