South Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s Past Lives is an exploration into what it means to love someone and lose them bit by bit, over the years

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“There is a word in Korean…‘in-yeon’. I think it comes from Buddhism and reincarnation. It’s an ‘in-yeon’ if two strangers even walk by each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush. Because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives,” Nora tells her husband, Arthur, who she meets at an artist retreat about this popular Korean belief.

Interestingly, when Arthur asks Nora if she truly believes in the existence of in-yeon, she dismisses it by saying, “That is what Koreans say to seduce each other.” However, it is later revealed that Nora not only believes in the existence of in-yeon, but is painfully aware of the fact that she doesn’t share the connection with Hae Sung, her long-lost Korean love.

The idea of in-yeon occupies centre stage in South Korean-Canadian director Celine Song’s debut directorial film Past Lives. What seems like an immigrant love story is, at its heart, a study on what it means to love someone and lose them bit by bit, over the years, till they are no longer the same person you fell in love with. As per the Korean belief, if two people get married, it means that there is a layer of 8,000 in-yeons between them; over 8,000 lifetimes of not being together (and simply brushing layers of clothes) till they finally become one.

Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Greta Lee (Na Young) play star-crossed lovers who are separated when Na Young decides to immigrate to Toronto with her family. A heartbroken Hae Sung, who otherwise accompanied Na Young all the way to the top of the stairs to her house, walks into a separate alleyway — a frame which is symbolic of their journeys thereafter. Na Young keeps climbing the staircase of life — she establishes herself as a successful playwright in Toronto, marries a white American man, and settles down in the US with a green card permit. Hae Sung, meanwhile, walks straight. He lives an ordinary life, with an ordinary income and, from what it seems, doesn’t fancy an upgrade.

The American Dream over love

Separated as kids, the lovers briefly rekindle their romance via Skype calls. Na Young is now Nora. She has literally and figuratively lost her Korean identity and is integrated into American society as a writer-cum-artist. As the Skype-call romance blooms, Nora cuts it short and suddenly breaks up with Hae Sung. “I immigrated twice to be here in New York. I want to accomplish something here. Instead, I am sitting around and looking for flights to Seoul,” she says. She then disconnects the call and cries. Nora knows that in this fight between her ambition and love, it is the latter that must take a backseat. She chooses her American dream over Hae Sung, who is visibly heartbroken.

A split-second scene shows Nora standing in the school playground all alone. The scene is a dead giveaway that Nora had a rough childhood in Toronto as an immigrant kid. “When I first immigrated, I cried a lot. But then I realized no one cared,” Nora tells Hae Sung at one point during their Skype conversation. Nora’s American dream is built over blood, sweat and hard work — must she sacrifice it all for Hae Sung? On the flipside, is Hae Sung wrong for being hung up on the younger version of Nora he remembers from his childhood?

Celine Song portrays the heartache of loving someone’s personality trait and losing them precisely for the same trait to stirring effect

Debutante filmmaker Celine Song portrays the heartache of loving someone’s personality trait and losing them precisely for the same trait, to stirring effect. “You had to leave because you are you. And I like you because you are you. And you are someone who leaves,” says Hae Sung to Nora when he visits her in New York, as her white Jewish husband is seated next to her, overhearing their conversation.

Walking their separate ways

The pain of separation felt by Hae Sung and Nora oozes through every frame the two are in. The uncomfortably long walk from Nora’s apartment to Hae Sung’s taxi pick-up and the long pause where the two stare at each other helplessly — like two lovers who have resigned to fate — are brimming with pain.

In a telling scene, Arthur, Nora’s husband, admits in what seems like a meta moment — “In this story, I will be the evil White American husband standing in the way of destiny. I am the guy you leave in the story to reunite with your ex-lover.” Nora reassures Arthur that she wouldn’t give in to Hae Sung’s advances, even though the writing is on the wall — she still loves him. This is apparent when she walks back to her apartment after Hae Sung leaves and cries in Arthur’s arms, as if she is mourning the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Ironically, Nora’s apartment, too, has a staircase that she must climb to enter. The minute details in the visuals and the immaculate set design accentuate an already effective screenplay.

Before Hae Sung enters the cab, in a split-second scene, we see young Hae Sung and Nora standing at the same diversion in Seoul — Nora is on the stairs, Sung is in the alleyway. Eventually, both walk their separate ways, having made peace with the fact that in this lifetime, the two do not have the ‘in-yeon’ for each other.

Song’s debut film is an ode to immigrant heartbreak — a trope not too commonly explored, that too with such nuance. Song’s genius lies in the fact that she lets the pain felt by the two lovers bleed into the film, with each passing minute. There are no overwhelming speeches, rousing monologues or over-the-top declarations of love. There are many silent moments though, and long pauses pregnant with pain. Song allows Hae Sung and Nora’s pain speak for itself — until it consumes the viewers, bit by bit, just like it consumed them over the years.

Past Lives is available to stream on Apple TV and iTunes.

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