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'Past Lives': A Story of Extraordinary Love

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo star in "Past Lives."
Greta Lee and Teo Yoo star in "Past Lives." By Courtesy A24 Films
By J.J. Moore, Crimson Staff Writer

Have you ever taken a moment and wondered about other people’s lives? Have you ever realized that every random passerby is living their own life with their own complex and vivid story that you will never begin to comprehend?

Writer-Director Celine Song’s debut feature film “Past Lives” dives deeply into this phenomenon. Through the lives of the film’s main characters, the story seamlessly explores the core experiences that shape individual narratives, connections, and relationships. With underlying themes of identity and interconnection, “Past Lives” is one of the most sentimental and personal love stories put to screen in recent years.

The film opens memorably as the camera pulls in on three figures sitting at a bar in New York — a man and a woman, both of Asian descent, chat with each other while a white man looks on, seemingly excluded from their conversation. Two off-screen people-watchers ask the audience: “Who do you think they are to each other?”

This question unleashes a mystery that the audiences are asked to piece together. “The answer is not very simple,” Song said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson. “We are going to solve it together by going back 24 years and really living their lives with them.” From the beginning of the film to the very end, Song takes the audiences on a journey of connection and reconnection that leaves audiences learning about each character through the trials within their relationships.

The main characters Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), childhood sweethearts, make two attempts over two decades to rekindle their relationship — despite lives that have gone in two different directions. The last time they get together is with the blessing of Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro), the white man in the opening scene. Although Arthur is uncomfortable with their meeting, Nora and Hae Sung meet up several times and their friendship flawlessly picks up where it once left off the last time they were together.

The main characters feel like two magnets that are constantly trying to grow closer, but must repel one another. For every brief moment in which their lives touch, they are forced apart by circumstance. Hae Sung and Nora’s bond is inextricably intertwined, the experiences that they have shared have left an everlasting imprint on them that Song cleverly and meditatively dissects throughout the film.

Song’s directing is expert. Through the use of cinematography, sound, and stellar dialogue, she draws visual parallels between the characters’ past and present lives to engineer a stronger emotional connection between the story and the audience. Telling the story of the film was important, but ensuring that viewers felt seen and heard themselves was just as vital.

Song wisely frames the young versions of her characters in a park when they bond for the first time. Upon reconnection, they find themselves in a New York park, brimming with childhood memories and innocence. A memorable scene is of their adult selves sitting beside each other as children’s laughter and carousel music plays in the background. Their newfound seriousness and vulnerability hangs between them. The dialogue is clear, natural, and concise, bringing only the most important elements of the story to the forefront.

The film refuses to fall flat. There is never a lull in conversation or a drop in visual acuity, which keeps the audience engaged as they attempt to piece the characters’ lives together. Therefore, by connecting the audiences with these characters, the ending itself is not only heartbreaking, but gut-wrenching in its relatability.

With that, it is evident that the story would not have the same impact without the stellar acting of the lead performers. Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are phenomenal at portraying childlike innocence within the confines of an adult body. Everytime their characters laugh, their faces break out into bright, dimpled smiles that feel nothing short of childlike and playful when the two of them are together. In times of difficult decisions, they are also able to embody a serious and mature tone that will hit close to home for many viewers.

Each character’s personal narrative is beautifully uncovered, making it clear how much attention and detail was given to the character building to communicate the true message of the story: A connection can forever influence a life.

Throughout the story Song weaves the buddhist-derived Korean term, “in-yun,” into the dialogue and plot of the film. “In-yun” is the idea that every connection between two souls is derived through thousands and thousands of years of interactions in their past lives. It is the ultimate string that ties these characters and the film’s audience together.

“In-yun” in this film is also a promise. A promise that the audience will not leave the theater the same way they had entered. Song’s debut film will forever change the way the audience views their relationships and makes people understand the power of circumstances. “If you want to think of that as an in-yun, I think that you can,” Song said. “I think that you should, because it makes even something like this … feel so special.”

Although the story is personal to Song, it is impossible for the audiences not to see a piece of their own lives in these characters. “Not everybody gets to save the world,” Song said. “But everybody does get to have certain relationships in their lives and some people — so many of us — get to do something that is extraordinary such as loving someone.”

—Staff writer J.J. Moore can be reached at jj.moore@thecrimson.com

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