Past Lives is a heartbreaking portrait of love, ambition and compromise | Hollywood - Hindustan Times
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Past Lives: Heartbreaking portrait of love and ambition, America and Korea, contentment and compromise

ByDevansh Sharma
Oct 13, 2023 06:10 AM IST

Celine Song's Past Lives, though an American movie set mostly in New York, has a burning Korean heart, or in fact a burning immigrant heart.

To me, Past Lives is not a romantic film. It's a coming-of-age tale, where two individuals come of age twice, at 12, 24, and 36 respectively. In all three instances, they stick to the same pattern — draw close to each other, realise that the other is all they've been missing all through, and then separating like they did the first time around. As they grow older, they only get more skilled at concealing their feelings, instead of coming to terms with them, as adults should.

Past Lives is now streaming on Lionsgate Play
Past Lives is now streaming on Lionsgate Play

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Love vs ambition

Celine Song's directorial isn't the first film to address the conflict between love and ambition by any stretch. Yet, it seems fresh because of how understanding the yin and the yang are of each other's energies. The film starts with 12-year-old Nora and Hae Sung walking back from school in South Korea. When their path forks, and Nora tilts towards the steps she has to take, Hae finally breaks the silence and asks her why she's not talking to him. She remains mum, only for Hae to point out that it's the only time he scored higher marks than her.

This sets the very tone of their lifelong relationship: she's relentlessly ambitious and a sulker when she doesn't have it her way, and he's the more confrontational of the two, demanding that his feelings be reciprocated. As Nora migrates with her parents to New York for a ‘better life,’ Hae Sung has no option but to sulk in silence. He can't stop Nora, because she wants to go, but he's again the one to break the silence and not leave his goodbyes unsaid when the two take their separate paths.

Seoul vs New York

'Twelve years pass'. That's what the text across the screen says. Not ‘12 years later,’ because ‘passing’ is associated with an inevitable fluidity, like time spent away from home. Nora, played by Greta Lee, is now living the American dream as a struggling playwright in New York. Hae Sung is pursuing engineering in a top college in South Korea. Greta here is in full Stella mode, her character from Apple TV's The Morning Show. Aggressively ambitious, she'll give it her all to secure her space in the crowded New York.

When the two regain touch through the internet and spend more time alive on Skype than IRL, they rediscover the missing piece of themselves. He reminds her of the little 12-year-old girl she was, ambitious like a dreamer, and not like a hustler. And she reminds him of a time when home felt homier.

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner lights their respective spaces in a way that they never share the same grade of colour. She's always struggling with sleep during late hours of night, bathed in the cinematic yet synthetic yellow lamp light; and he looks fresh in the soothing natural light of the day. When she starts giving up on sleep and waking up early morning in order to meet his time zone, she realises how her yearning for her past life is getting in the way of her future one.

They decide to take a break. She firmly says it's practical. He reluctantly says it's a good idea.

Contentment vs compromise

Twelve years pass. Nora is now married to a fellow writer. Maybe that's her way of surrounding herself with who she wants to be: American, creative, and striving to be successful professionally. He's a part of the American dream package: one that makes her overlook her compromise. But when he tells her that she still dreams in Korean, she dismisses it by saying, “I must be talking mostly gibberish.”

Hae Sung comes looking for Nora in New York, despite knowing she's married. He asks her if she still wants to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, the reason she claimed to migrate from South Korea in childhood, or is it the Pulitzer, as she claimed after getting to New York. Nora jokes it's now a Tony Award, suggesting that she's been compromising not only by living away from home, but also on her American dream, which gets diluted day by day.

After the two have a heart-to-heart at a bar as her husband looks on, sitting besides them, Hae constantly tries to probe Nora about the what ifs, trying to get her to succumb. But with a steely front, Nora tackles all the possibilities with a shrug. That's when Hae shows her the mirror and says, “I know it's not your fault. You're just someone who always leaves.”

When Nora is seeing him off and waiting for his Uber, they share no words. Just like they didn't back in the first scene, when she's about to leave South Korea. But this time, instead of walking silently side by side, they stare into each other's eyes, at complete peace with their decision, but with the latent gnawing pain of separation intact. He carries a suitcase, which has the same dark blue shade and uneven surface as the garage door in her background. He's taking a bit of her with him, yet again.

It's only in the final scene, when Nora walks casually back to her door, only to have her husband waiting to embrace her, that we see her cry her eyes out for the very first time. The breakdown isn't just an instinctive reaction to letting a part of her go, but a symptom of the deep-seated concern of whether it'll ever be back. She's not crying because of the compromise – after all, she chose this life – but because she doesn't know whether she'll ever be as content as she was in her past life.

Past Lives is now streaming in India on Lionsgate Play.

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