Past Lives Came at Just the Right Time 

**Spoilers ahead

Celine Song’s directorial debut Past Lives — a solemn film that grapples with the ‘what if’ tied to failed relationships, the decision to leave your home country, and the chance occurrences that change our lives forever, such as a fateful meeting with your future spouse — hit our cinema screens just as we took to social media to consider the possibilities for our own lives. ‘In another universe,’ would we still be lovers? Best friends? Something more or less? 

Song spotlights three individuals who each hold vastly different views on the matter. Nora Moon, the film’s confident and ambitious main character, crushes on her classmate and best friend Hae Sung as an elementary student in Seoul, South Korea. However, when Nora’s abrupt migration to Canada, and childish envy prevent them from saying a proper goodbye, Hae Sung seeks Nora out again 12 years later.

By chance, the two manage to cross paths and begin a relationship separated only by their physical distance, video calling one another for a couple of hours each day. Long distance relationships are nothing unfamiliar to our current generation, many of whom take to social media to share their heartbrokenness due to separation from their partner.

Celine Song poignantly reflects on this complicated partnership in an interview with W Magazine; “there are no human villains here, but there are villains — time and space.” Eventually, Nora’s despair is too much to bear — she feels held back by calling at odd hours in the day, often only for their internet connection to soon sever, and other commitments in their lives makes an in-person meeting years away. Hae Sung agrees to the split, holding back tears, and later drafts a confession to Nora, only to choose not to send it.

Soon, Nora meets her future husband Arthur at a writer’s retreat, and Hae Sung encounters his to-be long-term girlfriend on a trip to China. The film could end there, with both our main characters having found their true-life partners, except that this is not what Past Lives is about. The ‘what if’ torments Hae Sung and for the final time, 12 years later, he looks for Nora — this time, in her now hometown of New York. 

The reunion between the two is accompanied by little speaking, as well as rare touching. Instead, their gazes convey their lost childhood years together, and the words left unsaid 12 years ago, after their split.

Nora’s husband, Arthur, reflects on the cinematic quality of their entire situation, “childhood sweethearts who reconnect twenty years later and realise they were meant for each other.” But their situation is not as simple as Arthur puts. Nora and Hae Sung’s lives continued even after their relationship dwindled away, they transformed into adults but in their souls held the remnants of not only themself but the other as a child and a young adult, and what they meant to each other back then.

How they are to handle such feelings, to honour and preserve their love for each other, as well as finally, officially move on, becomes the dilemma of the film for its remaining run time. 

Gen Z are a hopelessly romantic, nostalgic generation; “30 percent more likely” to believe in the concept of a one, true soulmate for themselves than millennials according to a 2023 study done by Hinge.

Songs encapsulating romantic, homesick yearning, such as the newly released track ‘About You’ by The 1975, as well as older songs like Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’ can be founded en masse on TikTok, in the background of edits, screaming lip syncs and slideshows (if you know, you know) for heartbreaking lyrics such as “she’s the tear that hangs inside my soul forever.”

The situation in Past Lives would put many a Gen Z into a coma, I am sure, but perhaps it was why the film was such a hit amongst audiences, constantly plagued by the endless possibilities for their lives, the inherent romanticism of our intertwined relationships and the ‘what if,’ just like our main characters. 

The film centres around the idea of In-Yun, that every relationship we have with another in our current life is a result of having known each other in a past life. The more times people have treasured one another in their past lives, the stronger their current connections are, with married couples having “eight thousand layers of In-Yun over eight thousand lifetimes.”

The idea is touched upon as Nora first meets Arthur, and once again as Hae Sung and Nora say goodbye for the last time, that perhaps the relationship they shared with each other this life is a layer of In-Yun to who they are in their next life. What exactly that is, they cannot decide, but Hae Sung ultimately declares that he will see her then, in their next life.

It is a beautiful and melancholic way to honour the love that they shared, and the way their lives have changed since then — no longer having room to cherish one another in this life, but perhaps, in the next one. 

It is a message important for the hopeless romantics of Gen Z to hear, as well; we may not get a second chance to mend lost loves and broken friendships in this lifetime. The fact that we loved, that we shared a relationship, that we came to intimately know each other, it means we might love again.

Sometimes love cannot transcend the barriers of time and space, but it can transcend lifetimes. 

By Chantel Fernandes

Header image via iMDb

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