Debut Korean film gets at real life love Complications
DIRECTED BY CELINE SONG/ENGLISH, KOREAN/2023
Love is often viewed as a force of nature in films. A destiny that plays as a true calling to the characters. There’s something seductively irresistible about the idea, whether it’s a romcom about two people slowly realizing they are the ones for each other, or a disaster film about a love so powerful it saves Rose from a sinking ship, or even in a maturely sophisticated trilogy like the Before Sunrise series, there’s still a pull to the idea that there is one person we were assigned to eventually be with, and nothing will stop that from happening. Not oceans, or historical disasters or current marriages.
In Past Lives, Nora and Hae Sung (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo) are childhood friends. Nora moves when her family immigrates out of South Korea. It pulled her from a path that is clearly evident to the viewer she would have gone in and a person she would have been with. Yet her destiny is to be a writer in North America and to marry someone else. Someone great and loving and supportive.
Yet the film still asks the question – what if the stronger destiny just didn’t work out because it came at a time when things didn’t perfectly line up. Whether you were too young to understand the emotions that would eventually come. Or a connection happened at a time when life just didn’t allow you to be in the same space. It was probably it. The connection that was meant to be. The connection that would have saved you from a sinking ship. Yet life isn’t a film, and Celine Song wants to represent life, not a film. Even though she is doing it in a…film. Confusing, I know. Yet Past Lives has the objective of subverting romantic film tropes. So much so that her husband knows his place in the film he is in. He tells Nora that he is the roadblock. That there was a fate so strong at one time and he realizes he is simply the barrier, someone of a different country and who grew up speaking a different language. Someone that she met once, and it could have been anyone, but it was him, so they had sex, moved in for convenience and then fell in love.
And a good deal of his speech is more based in self-pitying and worrying, because Nora assures him, and we can concur with what we feel, that she does love him, and he is more than just a simple conflict in the script. Yet by Song acknowledging his worries, she is also acknowledging that this is not going to be a simple love story with simple answers and simple solutions. She is setting up the challenge for herself that she is going to make a more emotionally wrought film with no easy solutions. Hae Sung even says at one time, “I didn’t think it would hurt so much to like your husband.” A feeling that I couldn’t agree with more.
By laying down her cards early, Song is telling viewers to also not look for wide swings of dramatic acts. The little moments provide the drama, yet it’s a drama that is so powerful that it will gut you all the while reinforcing your faith in humanity. Because that is another thing that film allows. People to act in wildly selfish ways when they are in love. Sometimes the film will give them the easy out and make the third wheel cartoonishly villainous. Sometimes the third wheel gets shrugged off and the lovers move forward as understandable people who did a bad thing. But the most wonderful thing about Past Lives is how all the characters are not only good people, but the conflict only causes them to be better people.
You can compare Past Lives to In the Mood for Love (another masterpiece, but one that I think its characters are acting a little TOO moral). Or to Brief Encounter. Or as the reverse-Before Sunrise. But I think Song would reject all of that, as would I, and simply say this feels so honest and true to her experiences in life. And I know nothing about her as a director or a person, as this is her first film, but I don’t feel I need to read any facts or Wikipedia pages on her. It’s all right here. You can’t bare emotions this much and be this emotionally vulnerably and honest without showing us all who you are.