Film in Focus: Past Lives
As Past Lives opens, writer/director Celine Song asks us to people-watch. A New York bar at 4am, a trio sit in our line of sight: two Korean, one American; the former in conversation, the latter slowly edged out. Unseen people (a couple in the bar, Song, the audience?) make guesses as to the nature of this coming together, that prove not to be too far off base. Siblings, lovers, friends -- or something more unknowable? To steal a frequent quote from Song's screenplay, 'It just doesn't make any sense.'
From this vignette, twenty-four years retreat and twelve years pass at a time, as we learn the complex web of who these characters are to one another. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae-sung (Teo Yoo) spend a date together as children before the former, then known as Na-young, emigrates to Canada. Now split between New York and an impending summer in Shanghai, the two reconnect over late night/early morning Skype calls in their twenties; in their thirties, they sit in that same bar, and drink with Nora's husband Arthur (John Magaro). Arthur and Nora are both writers, and he opines that her connection to Hae-sung, while always tenuous, has the makings of a great love story. And in another life, another film than Song's, this may well be true.
Taken at its base layer, Past Lives should be an emotionally eviscerating watch -- two lovers, torn apart by circumstance and inconvenience whose story could have been perfect, been easy. Yet Song, perfectly composed in her feature debut, never feels one to take that road; instead opting for a supple, mature mode of storytelling. Each emotional beat the characters endure is disarming rather than devastating, human rather than clichéd; catharsis the side effect of the poignancy which Song handles the whole affair. Nora, Hae-sung and Arthur treat their situation with understanding and restraint, much as Song treats her audience. As with the prologue, Song asks us to people-watch rather than experience -- we distance ourselves from the past to understand meaning of the present. And this approach is intrinsic to the double meaning of the title.
Past Lives isn't in context only regarding the former undefinable love affairs between Nora and Hae-sung, but also the concept of In-yun. In life, as tenuous a link as two people brushing hands as they walk past another, compounds in the next life; the connections we hold in our present life informed and dictated by how many layers of connection preceded it. It is posited that Hae-sung and Nora could be eight-thousand layers deep, and in love due to that fact. Yet, it is also rebuffed that Arthur and Nora may have many more connections, yet be a love of convenience; and equally by Nora that In-yun as a concept is only spoken about when you want to seduce someone. A meta comment from Song, as she seduces her audience with this yearning romance? It certainly can't be put past the creative team at hand to be this referential.
Keith Fraase's editing bridges the longest most aching waits into fleeting moments of potency; time is layered, not linear. Shabier Kirchner's cinematography eschews awe and wonder in favour of quiet reminiscence; his lens shying from set-piece and landscapes, instead framing contained, even poetic portraits of people, spaces, things strewn around. We cannot see the bigger picture from our solitary place in time, so we must focus on the minutiae of the here and now. This is all to say that Past Lives feels so delicately yet impactfully constructed to express a love story that is about the nature of love, and the acceptance that love from a past can exist without the allowance for it to be applied in present.
It is curious, that Song's tale comes fast on the heels of another altogether different film that uses a similar methodology. Everything Everywhere All At Once may strike an odd point of comparison, considering it is as abstract and anarchic as Past Lives is calm and contained. However, both use eastern philosophy to inform an explicit/implicit story of an Asia-to-Americas immigrant ruminating on the many different lives she could have led. Both instances, while alternately rambunctious and sophisticated in tackling the idea of multiple identities and lives, feel inherently human -- the simplicity of code-switching in conversations, say, functioning much the same as the conceptualisation of other potential paths in life. And in both films case, the fear of other paths in life missed.
I'd be remiss to say that the entirety of Past Lives is disarming and gentle. The façade only holds so long before emotions spill forth, when confronted with that confusing realisation that another life could have been lived, could still be lived. Eight-thousand layers of fate, of circumstance, of love -- all that can't override the simple human act of wanting.