Some years ago, during the brief reign of the DVD, my dad had all our old home movies transferred over from VHS, and we started skimming through the footage. In one video clip, my grandfather, who died before I could really know him, was trying to record three-year-old me riding my tricycle through a leafy park. But scattered pinecones on the ground kept competing for my attention. I’d ride the tricycle for a few feet but then get off, pick up a pinecone and start tearing it apart, looking into the camera in a near trance. Watching this footage over two decades later gave me an odd feeling. The boy was me, of course, but at the same time no one I recognized or could identify with. I was overcome for a moment with the uncanny knowledge that I had once been someone else. It even felt like this strange boy—somehow more me than I could be—might have a message for me.
The gulf between who we are and who we were is, in some sense, the subject of the film Past Lives, the debut feature of Korean Canadian playwright Celine Song. The movie follows Na Young (later Nora) Moon, who emigrates—just as Song herself did—from Seoul to Toronto at the age of twelve. Before she leaves her mother sets up a date with her childhood crush, Hae Sung. Later, in their early twenties, when Nora is starting a career as a playwright in New York, the would-be couple briefly reconnect online, only to fall out of touch again. Twelve years after that, Hae Sung finally gets back in touch, with news that he’s coming to New York for a week-long visit. By then, Nora has been married for five years to another writer. Hae Sung’s own relationship is falling apart and, despite Nora’s unavailability, he wants to see if there’s still something there.
This plot is not exactly groundbreaking. There are many movies and novels about relationships and self-understandings upended by a childhood crush returning from the past. What distinguishes Past Lives is the way it renders time and our experience of it. Nora is not just reliving past love; she’s reliving her past itself.
Depicting this complicated set of emotional and temporal relationships well depends on a meticulous representation of the various settings that make up the movie: Seoul and New York in twelve-year increments from the early 1990s to the 2010s. During the date between the twelve-year-olds, Na Young’s mother explains to Hae Sung’s mother that she wants “to make nice memories” for Na Young to look back on. The settings in Seoul—the cozy, book-strewn apartment where Na Young lives with her filmmaker father and artist mother, the climbing path through apartment blocks that she and Hae Sung take home from school, the evocative sculpture park where they have their date—are filmed with a care and an attention to detail that almost establish them as nice memories for the audience too. Na Young’s mother says, “If you leave something behind you gain something too.” One of the things you gain, Past Lives suggests, is a past that can take on dimensions more profound—almost mythically so—precisely because it is left behind.
During Hae Sung’s and Nora’s brief reconnection in their twenties, the setting includes the internet itself, which was then in the early stages of its steady incursion into our lives. It may be profane to compare Proust’s madeleine to the film’s use of sound effects from mid-aughts Skype, but they too evoke a past world, one that was getting smaller but at the same time more alienating. Facebook, which is how Hae Sung reenters Nora’s life, was bringing far-flung friends and family—many of them from past lives—back within reach. But it was easy to wonder, even at the time, if this was particularly good for us. As their reconnection begins to feel like something more serious but also less fulfillable, Nora decides it isn’t good for her. Instead of concentrating on her classes and rehearsals, she is typing out messages to Hae Sung, staying up at odd hours to talk to him, and planning unrealistic trips to Seoul. Though there is little real action in this section of the film, Song finds ways to keep our attention. The camera, suggestive of fate itself, drifts eerily over the characters and skylines as they navigate buffering video and dropped calls.
The characters discuss fate at length, especially in the form of inyeon, a word from Korean Buddhism that refers to a fated relationship. As Nora explains it to her future husband, Arthur, when they first meet at a writers’ retreat in Montauk, “It’s an inyeon if two strangers even walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives.” When Hae Sung visits New York, Arthur becomes, quite understandably, insecure about the many “layers of inyeon” that seem to connect Hae Sung and his wife. He imagines a story in which he plays the “the evil, white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” This insecurity, his authorship of a novel called Boner with a Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog on its cover, and the fact that he still plays video games in his mid-thirties suggest the worst. But he and all the other principal characters demonstrate a mature sense of their delicate entanglement with one another that it is rare to see represented in a movie.
For Nora, the entanglement is not just with Arthur and Hae Sung, but with herself at various stages of her life. When Hae Sung comes to New York, he brings with him the twelve-year-old Na Young and all the different ways her life could have gone. As they tour the Statue of Liberty and talk near a merry-go-round under the Brooklyn Bridge that recalls their childhood date, he insists, without being pushy, on her connection with the twelve-year-old girl that both is and isn’t her. Song uses sparing flashbacks, not from the perspective of the characters but from that of something like fate, to underscore the presence of this past. The flashbacks remind us that the meaning of one’s childhood changes—deepens—as one ages. In her early twenties, Nora still seems continuous with her childhood, to the point that she may still be trying to escape it. By her mid-thirties, however, it has become something more romantic and mysterious—a source, possibly, of renewal.
“The past is a foreign country,” wrote L. P. Hartley. For Nora, it is not just another country but also, poignantly, another language. Late one night, Arthur tells her that she sleep-talks in Korean: “You dream in a language that I can’t understand. It’s like there’s this whole place inside of you where I can’t go.” But Nora, more practical than either of the male characters, recognizes that she can’t quite go there either. Our past may have a message for us, but we flatter and delude ourselves if we assume we can decode it. “I’m sure I’m just saying gibberish,” Nora tells Arthur.