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The Effortless Intimacy of ‘Past Lives’

Celine Song’s directorial debut ‘Past Lives’ was released in theatres in India on 7 July and is easily one of the best films of the year, featuring phenomenal performances from the cast, notably Greta Lee and Tae Yoo, and a simple yet heart-wrenching story. What makes the movie easily one of the best this year, however, is the intimacy brought out by Song’s brilliant direction.


Past Lives follows the story of Nora(Greta Lee) and Hae Sung(Tae Yoo) who were classmates before Nora’s family immigrated to Canada. Although young, it is clear that Nora and Hae-Sung mean a lot to each other. Before they leave, Nora’s mom sets up a date for Nora with Hae-Sung, to let her daughter have memories to cherish of a place she will soon stop calling home. 

Soon after, Nora's parents, who are artists, relocate to Canada, causing them to split up. After losing contact for twelve years, they reconnect on Facebook. Nora decides that this relationship with Hae-Sung will end up hindering her ambitions and therefore suggests that they take “a break”.

Nora then travels to a Montauk artist's residency, where she meets Arthur(John Marago). After another 12 years, we learn that she has been Arthur's wife for seven years at this point. Hae-Sung, who was dating a person he met through an exchange programme in China, has arranged to travel to New York. Nora first assumes it's simply another "vacation" until she finds out he dumped his fiancée, and that he travelled all this distance only to see her. They navigate their relationship and what they mean to each other, all while Arthur’s presence is explicitly felt. It's difficult not to feel for Arthur because of the sensitivity with which Magaro plays him. 


The beauty of the film, however, is the things left unsaid. Song ingeniously orchestrates an intimacy that seems so effortless, yet is carefully placed in the form of unspoken details throughout the film. The way Nora finds her way around typing Hangul on her keyboard or how she slips through the crowds of people to get to her apartment and fixes her hair before her scheduled call with Hae-Sung. The Skype call itself, which glitches throughout, prompted giggles from the audience at the theatre. 


The film has a dialogues-only-when-necessary approach and one may even go as far as to say that the best moments are the ones where silences fill the scene. When Nora and Hae-Sung meet after 12 years, of not speaking, the dialogue between the two characters is achingly real, the awkwardness and anticipation abundant in the air. The two say very less but communicate a lot more, and the stolen glances between the two when they sit beside each other, become the highlight of the scene. 

Song’s genius is unveiled right at the start of the film. In very many scenes, the camera stays on the characters for a second too long, shifting focus onto what they did and didn’t do at that moment, since the central theme of the film is the things left unsaid. When Nora is leaving for Canada, the last walk home from school with Hae-Sung is unusually quiet and on the diversion where they must go their separate ways, Hae-Sung utters a stoic goodbye and the audience is helplessly left to watch them walk their separate ways till they move out of the frame. You imagine What May’ve Been and you watch instead, What Is. 


The film is truly terrifying. The pacing of the movie is deliberately slow and it forces you to take it all in. It sits with you, makes you think. It lingers on after you walk out of the theatre. Every decision you make makes your life. You are who you chose to be. What May Have Been? 

Gorgeously shot, the filmmaking is best describes as patient. In an interview with The New York Times, Song dissects the scene where Hae-Sung and Nora meet in New York, and talks about the sense of longing that is created through the approach of shifting camera focus between the two characters. 


The notion of "soul-mates" is also heavily explored in Song's film. Folklore in Korea refers to something as "Inyun"; essentially, people are said to have a layer of "Inyun" on them whenever they pass one another and their clothes softly brush against one another. It is commonly held that soulmates must cross paths with one another 8,000 times in various incarnations before they are considered "destined" to be together.


The strength of Past Lives lies in its subtle depiction of cultural identity and the challenges of traversing contrasting realities. Korean-American Nora struggles to understand her background and the decisions that have moulded her. The film contrasts Hae Sung's more traditional Korean upbringing with her Western perspective to provide a fascinating analysis of the collision of their cultural origins and how it affects their relationship.

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