‘Past Lives’: A luxurious and lingering portrayal of lost love and identity in the Korean diaspora

September 11, 2023 - 10:58 AM
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A scene from Celine Song's "Past Lives." (TBA Studios/Released)

“Past Lives” is Celine Song’s debut film about Nora and Hae Sung who were deeply connected in childhood. The film focuses on them reuniting as adults after a long separation.

The film introduces global audiences to the Korean Buddhist concept of In-Yun – the connection, fate or destiny of two people. “Past Lives” takes this millennia-old philosophical idea of human relationships and transposes it into the digital age through the young Korean diaspora.

Audiences meet Nora and Hae Sung when they are 12-year-olds in Korea. They are sweetly obsessed with each other in the way children of that age can be. Just as their young love is blossoming, however, Nora emigrates with her family to Canada. They reunite 22 years later when Hae Sung visits Nora in New York, where she now lives with her American husband.

The film asks what would you do if someone from your past, especially your first love, reappeared later in your life. Would your perception of this person change? Would they still be a lover or could you be friends? What impact would it have on your current relationship? Would you always be wondering what life could have been like?

These questions take on double meanings when considered from a diaspora perspective. Nora’s first love, Hae Sung, is Korean but by the time the pair meet she has lost some of her connection to that side of herself. She has let her Korean name, Na-Young, totally go, she only speaks Korean with her mother and she talks about Korean culture from a distanced perspective. She is Korean but Hae Sung is Korean, Nora explains to her American husband in one particularly funny scene.

Their In-Yun (reunion) and the questions it brings up are as much about love as they are about identity and Nora’s connection, or disconnection, to parts of herself and her past.

“Past Lives”, then, is not about Korean culture in its entirety but about the Korean diaspora, here represented by an author and playwright who may well see herself as an American woman. In this way, it is a staunchly Korean-American film.

Korean masculinity through a woman’s eyes

Korean film is becoming increasingly transnational today and there is a growing body of work by the Korean diaspora. “Past Lives” joins films such as the award-winning Minari, which is about a Korean-American family that moves to a farm in search of its American dream.

“Past Lives” is notable, however, as a Korean diaspora film made by a woman. One of the most fascinating aspects of the film is its female perspective.

Like “Minari”, “Past Lives” allows viewers an insight into Korea and Korean-ness from the diaspora perspective. This is all tied up in the very Korean character of Hae Sung. Here, Celine Song has employed the rare female gaze to portray her leading man.

The camera sees him the way Nora (played by Greta Lee) does: as a small-minded Korean man of middle or lower middle class who does not even dare to fight for her. The camera looks upon him not sexually but lovingly as it lingers over him in a sort of appreciation, highlighting his sensitivity through close-ups, like how he readjusts his hair or backpack. It tends to highlight the boyish qualities he maintains because, in my eyes, Nora loved little 12-year-old Hae Sung, but adult Hae Sung is too Korean.

Hae Sung is explosively portrayed by the actor Teo Yoo, a member of the diaspora himself as German-Korean. When Nora and Hae Sung meet in New York, he speaks only the broken English of a typical young middle-class Korean engineer. Yoo does a wonderful job of communicating Hae Sung’s complex feelings through a very physical performance. His nervousness and hopefulness can be read on his face and the way he holds his whole body.

Showing emotion rather than telling

“Past Lives” is full of extremely long lingering shots and close-ups that highlight the emotions of its characters. Song is invested in showing how characters feel rather than telling. This is heightened by the minimal use of music, acoustics and carefully chosen dialogue by a small number of actors.

The same can be said for her establishment of place as audiences are shown long shots of the landscapes and streets of Seoul. This sort of camera work is steeped in a sense of remembrance of past lives and evokes a lost time and space in a cool, emotionally charged, nostalgic way. Again, “Past Lives” deftly translates emotions through visuals for audiences who might not fully understand the diaspora experience in words but might through feeling.

Such stylistic choices, in my opinion, recall slow cinema – an atmospheric form of filmmaking steeped in long takes that favor silence over long dialogue.

“Past Lives” is a romantic tribute to the longing of the Korean diaspora for a lost past and homeland, a captivating and sensitively constructed film that will be enjoyed by many.

“Past Lives” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.