By Jana Monji
Writer/director Celine Song has drawn from her past and heritage to wrap the Korean cultural concept of in-yun into her compelling feature film directorial debut, Past Lives.
Korean Canadian Song was born in South Korea and immigrated with her family to Ontario, Canada when she was 12. Song received an MFA from Columbia University in 2014, and her play, Endings, premiered at the American Repertory Theater in 2019. In March 2020, Endings opened at the New York Theatre Workshop for an off-Broadway run, which closed early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As a Korean Canadian living in New York City, Song once found herself in an East Village bar, interpreting for her current American husband and her former childhood sweetheart who was visiting from South Korea.
That is where the film begins. An unseen couple observe three people who we come to know as Nora (Los Angeleno Korean American Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Korean German actor Teo Too) and Arthur (John Magaro).
The film flashes back 24 years to when Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Lim) were classmates in South Korea. Na Young is first in her class and Hae Sung is second, until one day their places are reversed. Na Young cries, but Hae Sung comforts her.
Na Young’s family decides to immigrate to Canada. On their last day together, Na Young explains to Hae Sung that she’s moving to Canada because she wants to win a Nobel Prize, and no Korean has ever received one for literature. (At the time, no Canadian had received one either.)
Twelve years later, Hae Sung and Na Young, now called Nora, reconnect over Skype. While there still seems to be a connection, Nora breaks away, complaining that she’s stopped writing. How will she win a Pulitzer when she’s spending too much time looking at flights to South Korea?
Nora escapes by attending a writing retreat. She’s the first person there, and Arthur is the last. They strike up a conversation, and Nora explains the concept of “in-yun,” which roughly means “destiny” or “fate” and is connected with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation.
Twelve years later, Nora is married to Arthur and living in New York. Arthur writes books, while Nora writes a play about her immigration experience. Then, out of the blue, Nora is informed that Hae Sung is visiting New York, and the story picks back up at the opening scene.
Under Song, the cast developed nuanced, multilayered characters. Their world feels real and messy. Song gives us a sensitive view of one woman’s life choices and the two men who are affected by them. Nora’s desire to win a Pulitzer Prize and then a Tony Award create a limitation: Nora must stay in the US and then, she must stay in New York. Returning to South Korea would crush either dream and that makes her marriage to Arthur a necessary part of her goal. The story considers the very nature of love and fate and how they are shaped by ambition.
Past Lives had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2023 and was featured at the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. The film was given a limited release on June 2 and will be released nationwide this weekend.
For a longer review, visit AgeOfTheGeek.org.
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