It’s tempting to think of Past Lives, Celine Song’s haunting (and haunted) first film, as a work in search of a story. In the end, though, it’s exactly the reverse. The story is there but the characters can’t live it. They can’t let it happen and they can’t let it go. ‘What a good story this is,’ one of them says at a certain point. And a little later: ‘I never thought I’d be a part of something like this.’ The first ‘this’ is a kind of gift, the second is the gift’s refusal from close-up.
This all sounds rather cryptic, and the film is mysterious. It is also lucid and precise, intimately devoted to its strange lyrical sorrow. It’s as if we are watching feelings in slow motion. When asked to name influences on her work, Song, who wrote the film as well as directed it, has mentioned Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003). She was impressed, even liberated, by the idea of characters and audience being ‘connected’, even though the movie seemed to offer only a ‘barren stage’. Song’s stage in Past Lives is not barren, but it does invite us to see how beautifully photographed locations (clouded cityscapes, bridges, rivers, rainy streets) can fail to answer the questions we want to ask them.
The beginning is very eloquent in this respect. The screen is dark and blank, and a woman’s voice says, ‘Who do you think they are to each other?’ Then we see a woman and two men sitting at a bar, while the unseen speakers make guesses: ‘I think the white guy and the Asian girl are a couple and the Asian guy is her brother’; ‘Or the Asian girl and the Asian guy are a couple, and the white guy is their American friend.’ But their leading refrain is ‘I don’t know.’ As the guesses dry up, the woman looks around the bar and then gazes inquiringly at the camera. A title card reads ‘24 years earlier’.
Twenty-four years earlier – that is, about two seconds later – two children, Na Young and Hae Sung, climb a hill on the outskirts of Seoul. They have just left school and Na Young is crying because Hae Sung has, for once, got better marks than she did. He says she’s a psycho, which is apparently meant as a compliment, or at least to be funny. We then see the children in a park, happily playing around a modernist statue. Their mothers are there too, permitting, even encouraging, the children to think of each other as sweethearts. It’s not going to last long, because we hear Na Young’s mother tell a friend that they are immigrating. She means that the family is going to Canada. Shouldn’t she say ‘emigrating’? Perhaps the creator of the subtitles made a mistake? Or maybe the film is talking to us in its own language. It suggests that immigrations of all kinds are possible, but emigration is always partial. Home isn’t where the heart is, it’s where a piece of the heart is held hostage and can’t be released.
A visual form of this aphorism appears when the two children see each other for the last time in Korea. The shot is taken from behind them, in a place that looks like the bottom of the hill we saw before. He continues up a winding street to the left, she takes a long series of steps to the right. We see the scene again, but only as a memory – only as our memory, strictly, given the point of view, but the characters are remembering just the same moment.
The timeframe of the film shifts in twelve-year intervals. After the flashback we are halfway towards the present. Na Young has become Nora (played by Greta Lee) and lives in New York – her parents stayed in Canada. She is a playwright, very adult and professional and composed. One day she learns that Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) has been looking for her on the web (we have seen him in a bar in Seoul, getting drunk and sentimental about the girl who abandoned him). She joins the search, and they have many online conversations from all kinds of location, allowing the film to set up Seoul and New York as cities that are different and the same and above all physically far apart. He is Seoul, so to speak, and she was Seoul. At one point he identifies her as ‘someone who leaves’. When Nora realises that this relationship isn’t going anywhere – hasn’t actually been anywhere except where it started – she suggests they stop talking for a while. Hae Sung, who perhaps doesn’t want the relationship to go anywhere but doesn’t want it to end either, reluctantly agrees.
In the present, Nora is married to another writer (Arthur, played by John Magaro), and Hae Sung has become an engineer. He announces that he would like to visit Nora in New York. Nora doesn’t think of saying no to the reunion, and Arthur is the person who makes the remarks I quoted earlier about the ‘story’ and being ‘part of something like this’. The story he thinks is so good is one where he vanishes from the scene, sacrificed to the return of the old romance. The ‘something’ is a set-up where he is an embarrassed observer of a relationship that cannot exist anywhere except in two haunted minds. Nora and Hae Sung spend some time together; they take the Staten Island Ferry, wander around underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, smiling a lot, looking pained from time to time, saying little. There is a wonderful shot of the two of them on the subway. They are standing, hanging on to a pole. As the train rocks, they look as if each is expecting to find a secret in the other’s face. The pole links them because they are both clinging to it; it divides them by placing them in separate halves of the screen.
Nora tells Arthur that Hae Sung is ‘so Korean’, which means, I think, that he is only Korean, not more Korean than she is. After a day or so – and a long evening in a bar, where we realise that the film’s opening conversation was a flash-forward, and that the playful speculations were wrong – Hae Sung leaves. Nora accompanies him from her and Arthur’s house in the East Village to a street corner where an Uber driver will pick him up and take him to the airport. Again, they say virtually nothing. Once he has gone Nora cries uncontrollably. We don’t see Hae Sung’s final reaction, but we do see the city hurrying past the car windows. There’s plenty of sorrow in the film, but this conclusion, strangely, doesn’t feel sad. It feels stark but has an element of success and solution about it, as if a loss has finally been accepted for what it really is. But what would that be?
There is quite a lot of talk in the film about In-Yun, a Korean Buddhist conception of destiny, where present figures are connected to distant earlier avatars. This is a perfect metaphor for an unshakeable pastness, but the idea of fate also makes it very orderly – plotted and manageable. Song’s movie is more delicate. Nora and Hae Sung and Korea are persons and a country, detailed and specific in the film’s reading of their looks, but their past and their present are also emblems of a confused longing to be found in many other people and places; of what a character in another film, Hiroshima mon amour, calls an ‘inconsolable memory’.
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