If you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real.Ethan Hawke as Jesse in Before Midnight (2013)
The elasticity of time, both as a permanent and inescapable stasis that keeps us locked in our liminal memories and as a languid, meandering cosmic thread that floats and intersects with a million others. We exist trapped in moments, stuck in these definitional instants that refract through every fiber of our being. When these moments intersect, colliding instants in separate existences, they may define or redefine each person in very different ways. For some, one of these instants may be a short lived moment of quiet joy. For others, it may become a burdening weight. It may be quickly forgotten, or it may be what drives the next 24 years of a life. These collisions are happening constantly – everywhere around us, little sparks, little definitional moments, imperceptible but infinitely impactful ripples woven through the fabric of the timeline of our lives. Past Lives begins with a gentle zoom across a dimly lit New York bar, slowly pushing towards protagonist Nora. At the very end of this long, gentle zoom, she looks right into the lens. Right at you. She gives a slight, but knowing smile. In that magical instant, you collide with the film.
Celine Song’s Past Lives is a film of echoes and reflections, these repeating moments and emotions that keep coming back to us no matter how far we think we are from them. It is a film of conflicting emotions, the crashing waves of pain and joy we feel as we navigate a journey from the simplicity of childhood to the infinite complexity of adulthood through the painful frustrations of adolescence. It is a film of deep empathy and maturity, of understanding and kindness. It is a film painted by the influence of dozens of cinematic romances, refracting and blending and metamorphizing the love songs of Wong Kar-wai and Richard Linklater while inverting the destructive romantic chaos of Michel Gondry. The echoes of these films bounce off of the leading trio of characters and consistently provide beautiful new avenues to explore familiar ideas in new spaces with refreshingly honest emotional resonance, ever evading any chance to draw any direct comparisons despite its knowing reference points.
The film is an exercise in a constant theoretical narrative conclusion that it effervescently glides away from, an unknowability that defines each of its characters as well as the winding, floating river of our lives. Just as the unseen couple who introduce the film in its first scene’s slow zoom on Nora sitting beside her husband Arthur and long lost childhood sweetheart Hae Sung, the audience is repeatedly challenged to try to place each character on an invisible emotional map. There’s an expectation set by the genre of romance, a prescriptive idea of how these ideas should play out, a culturally idealized vision sold to audiences by decades of redundant romances. Celine Song isn’t just disinterested in these ideas – she is actively rejecting them.
Nora’s story begins in Seoul, when she’s just 12 years old. Her sweet young romance with classmate Hae Sung starts and stops with just one innocent date, set up by their parents – Nora’s mom in search of a few idyllic memories before they emigrate to Canada. It feels perfect. Of course they’ll find their way back together someday – that’s how these things always go. Twelve years later, young adult Nora has moved from Toronto to New York, a budding post-graduate playwright now on the opposite side of the globe from post-mandatory military service Hae Sung. Nora casually looks up old school friends as a light joke, but Hae Sung has been actively searching for her, a missed connection lingering in his brain, locked in that simple moment of liminal innocence a decade ago. When they finally reconnect, it’s like there was never any distance between them. In an achingly beautiful sequence that softly depicts the heartbreaking fragility of distance, the two rekindle that invisible magic through the fuzzy blue stutters of Skype. The fact that they’re in different places is less of a problem than being at different points, needs and desires just perfectly mismatched to make it impossible to truly commit to this.
Drifting apart once again from the repeated orbit of Hae Sung, Nora commits herself to her career and connects with fellow writer and New York local Arthur. The simple story of finding each other on an idyllic Montauk summer evening watching the sunset over a glass of wine may not be as sweepingly cinematic as the lingering hypothetical conclusion left with Hae Sung, but this is just as real and beautiful –a new instant beginning a new story. Another 12 years later, a married Arthur and Nora live in blissful harmony in a cramped east village apartment, contentedly existing in a thread of cute moments and boundless adoration. While Nora may have moved on, Hae Sung has once again found himself in her gravitational pull, plagued with thoughts of the romance that evaded him. Traveling to New York to see her in person for the first time since they were just kids, Song shifts the scales once again, leveraging your expectations against the much simpler reality of existence.
Past Lives isn’t interested in pitting anyone against each other, and even less interested in perpetuating some glorified false vision of what love really looks like. In one of their many liminal moments, Nora and Hae Sung bond over Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – but while Eternal Sunshine hinges on an impossibly intertwined cosmic romance where destiny pulls you back to your soulmate no matter the self-destructive implications, here we’re given a distinct inversion. This gravity Hae Sung feels is not some unbreakable link, but an unsolved moment. This picture perfect, idealized fantasy isn’t real. “That’s not how life works,” Nora tells Arthur as he opens up to his wife about his insecurities surrounding Hae Sung’s presence. For Arthur, the question isn’t about what her life would be like if she had stayed with Hae Sung, it’s about what her life would be like if he simply hadn’t been there. For him, it could have been anyone else. The problem with these hypotheticals is that they’re just that. These hypotheticals that burden us, that keep us at arm’s length from the truths we must reconcile with. Sometimes, the answer’s right there. It’s not always perfect, but it’s real.
Past Lives is a film of overcoming fear. Of finally being able to reach back towards that formative instant and tell that version of yourself exactly what they need to hear. To let them go, because you’re someone else now. A new person, with new ambitions, with new ideas, with a spark that caught on in this life even if it didn’t in the past 8,000 of them. Everything here is delivered with a delicately woven vulnerability and tenderness, a cinematic vision of a world where even though we might face the difficult realization that the perfect fantasies we once had aren’t so realistic, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for emotional resonance, gentle empathy, and honest love. Hae Sung won’t miss that plane in this life, but it will finally take him away from that sunny, gentle moment he’d been trying to break free from for the past 24 years. Away from the past and away from the moment we spent colliding with the warmly lit celluloid.