Life is a tapestry of choices and paths not taken.
What if? A seemingly innocuous pair of words, yet they often bear the weight of a lifetime's worth of pondering. What if I had chosen differently? What if you had stayed? What if we were destined for one another in a different life? Past Lives, the directorial debut of Celine Song, delves into these contemplations, weaving a narrative of connection, longing, and reconciliation. As the centerpiece feature at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Timid Magazine is treated to a preview of the film, followed by a Q&A with Song and lead actress Greta Lee, who portrays Nora Moon. While Past Lives skillfully navigates the realm of "what if" scenarios, at its heart lies a deeper introspection on acceptance and moving forward.
Past Lives is a profound exploration of love, fate, and the connections that bind us, transcending cultural and temporal boundaries. The film’s delicately constructed narrative follows the poignant journey of two childhood friends, Nora and Hae-sung (played by Teo Yoo), who find themselves reunited twice after a span of 12 years. It probes deeply into the characters' interiority and peels back layers of decisions that have shaped their existences, or the lives they might have lived.
As I waited for the film to start, I had little idea of the introspective journey I was about to embark on. Unbeknownst to me, Past Lives was not just a film, but a reflective surface, mirroring my own history of relationships over the past few years—the ones I had newly formed, the ones I had strengthened, and the ones I had let go. These connections, regardless of their magnitude, form the essence of Past Lives, as it beautifully unravels the nuanced concept of In-Yun. When I spoke with Song, she thoughtfully described In-Yun as “the feeling of fatedness or the connections that we have with one another. For example, the feeling of someone brushing up against you. Or even this interview we’re having.” According to Song, these are moments of In-Yun. They may not be as strong as the In-Yun between spouses or family members, but they’re still connections. Song adds, “Even a small connection can have reverberations or histories beyond this life.” And indeed, it's in these everyday moments of our lives where our encounters can create meaningful ripples that lead to profound outcomes. Past Lives is a slow-burn film that makes you contemplate the different life paths you've taken and could have taken as you watch the characters navigate their own decisions.
At its core, Past Lives elegantly traverses time and space, illuminating various forms of In-Yun through the intricate dynamics between Nora, her partner, Arthur (played by John Magaro), and Hae-sung. From the initial scene, we, as the audience, are drawn in, both as observers and active participants. Viewing the trio from across the bar, we find ourselves debating their relationships. This curiosity sets the narrative in motion as we travel back in time to Korea, where we meet a young Nora and Hae-sung. In these tender moments of their youth, we glimpse the possibilities of a blossoming romance, only for Hae-sung—and us—to discover that Nora is about to emigrate to Canada. As the story progresses, we bear witness to rekindled bonds, newly formed ties, and missed connections that weave the complex fabric of these characters' lives. At the crux of their journey, Nora, Hae-sung, and Arthur find themselves at a crossroad, compelled to make decisions that will define how they view love and their relationships in the present and beyond.
Transitioning from this poignant juncture, we delve into a profound reflection shared by Lee. She shares, "Past Lives has a lot to do with being bilingual and bicultural, but it’s also about the universal human experience of falling in love and our capacity to love, which everyone can relate to because life is short. So how do we reconcile all of these things? That’s what the film is after.” Past Lives highlights the idea that "love" can be nuanced and deeply personal, varying from one individual to another. No two experiences of "love" are identical, and the connotations of "love" are infinite. Song then shares her perspective on the most romantic moments in the film, the everyday interactions between Nora and Arthur. “Living in a small apartment in New York City and being there for each other in this kind of mundane way. It’s when Arthur accepts that he does not know the Nora that she shares with Hae-sung. That type of love.” Taking inspiration from the title of the film, love also transcends generations, flowing between lifetimes, building upon each other. There’s a moment in the movie where Nora and Hae-sung discuss this very idea. Song says, “In that moment, love starts to exist out of time and space. It inspires Hae-sung to say the final lines of the film. It’s not about past lives being something behind us, but it’s also something that we can look forward to.”
Past Lives is a mirror reflecting our histories, our connections, and our fatedness, no matter how subtle or profound. It also serves as a window into the "what ifs," the boundless possibilities that make life so complex yet undeniably beautiful. At the end of the Q&A, Lee is asked, "What do you want people to take away from Past Lives?" She responds, "My favorite movies are the ones where you leave the theater and the world looks a little different to you."
As I exited the theater, the echo of Lee's words in my mind sparked a moment of introspection. I started to view not only the movies, books, and music that have shaped my perspective, but also my everyday experiences and interactions through a new lens. Each shared laugh, each tear shed, each moment experienced—these connections, these seemingly mundane threads in the tapestry of my life, took on a profound significance. I realized that each person I've encountered, whether through a fleeting interaction or a deep-rooted bond, has left an indelible imprint, subtly changing the landscape of my world. Like Nora, Hae-sung, and Arthur, I too am part of a complex web of connections, a living testament to the intricate dance of In-Yun. And with that realization, the world indeed looked a little different to me.
Past Lives opens in theaters on June 2.