Saturday, December 30, 2023

Past Lives

Past Lives
(Celine Song, 2023) "Woah!"
"There is a word in Korean – inyeon. It means providence or fate. But it's specifically about relationships between people. I think it comes from Buddhism and reincarnation. It's an inyeon if two strangers even walk by each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married,they say it's because there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon over 8,000 lifetimes."*

It begins from an outside perspective. Three people sit at a bar—two men, one woman (not that it would matter, really)—two of them are Korean and one is Caucasion/Jewish (not that it would matter, really). We never see who's talking, but a man and a woman are talking about them—"Who do you think they are to each other?" There's idle speculation over who's the couple, what the "third wheel" is doing there then, and what the trio (if they are a trio) are doing at a New York Greenwich bar at 4 a.m.? The ideas keep getting more elaborate and less specific and finally the woman just gives up the little tavern game: "I have no idea."
The story will span 24 years, but not the full 24. There will be long stretches that we're not privy to, and we'll see only the sporadic bursts of activity that have brought us—and them—to this bar and this conversation. It's like it was meant to happen...but not in this way.
Past Lives is a love story, but it might as well be a multi-verse movie, too. No super-heroes, no diverging time-lines, although it's not without divergence. It tells the story of Hue Sang (played
Leem Seung-min as a child, then Teo Yoo as an adult) and Na Young (Moon Seung-ah in childhood)—or "Nora" as she will call herself (Greta Lee as an adult)—two very intelligent students—they're constantly competing about who'll get the best grades in school—in South Korea. When Na comes in second, she cries, and Hue is always there to comfort her...not that it happens too often. They are best of friends and in "puppy love"—Na announces that she will marry him—and they seem inseparable. But, in reality, they are: Na Young's father is a filmmaker and to advance his career decides to move his family to Canada. The two have a pre-arranged date before she leaves, and then, she is gone.
Twelve years pass and Nora is now 24 and living in the United States. One day, she asks her Mother if she can remember the name of her long-lost friend and tries to find him through the internet. To her surprise, she discovers that he is trying to find her, leaving a message/comment years ago on her father's web-site. She follows up and they begin to talk on Skype, reconnecting and catching up, and then becoming inseparable despite the distance and time-zones...and the vagaries of the internet. She's pursuing a writing career and he's studying engineering and they start adjusting their schedules to talk every day, even if they miss sleep or are late for class. They make the time. They've missed each other and make plans to meet again, whether in New York or in Seoul. But, the plans don't solidify with each others' commitments, and they can only leave it at a hopeful "See you then." Life's what happens when you're busy making other plans.
Then, Nora says they have to take a break. The visit's not happening any time soon—even though she's constantly looking up flights to Seoul—and he's committed to a language exchange program in China for a year and a half, and she has a residency in Montauk and she really wants to make a "go" of it in New York. It's a devastating decision, but they both agree to give each other space, even as they wonder at why it's mutually heart-breaking. This is crazy that something as ephemeral as an internet connection should be so important that its loss can wound. What is love, anyway, but something we imagine, something we hope, something we dream, even if its impossible?
I think about this often and too much, actually, to be practical. When I wrote about my favorite Hitchcock film, Vertigo, I started it recalling that old song "What is this thing called love?" To me, love is a form of insanity—and even that is too simplistic (and too cynical)—it gets in the way, complicates matters, makes you do things against your self-interest, and can knock you for a loop if it isn't letter-perfect. Love pulls at the heart-strings. And we don't HAVE heart-strings! We have connections...which are metaphorically the same thing. Yes, love gets in the way. But, it also makes the way better, the way sugar sweetens your coffee, even though you'd drink coffee, anyway. And the effects of sugar are ephemeral, too, they don't last, even though we keep reaching for the spoon. It makes the medicine go down, after all.
And, as I mentioned in that Vertigo article, I like movies that question love, and distrust the ones that make it look so easy, with their formulaic tropes of
the "meet-cute," the "song-montage," "the-rough-road," and the "happily-ever-after,"—which always reminds of the Orson Welles quote "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story." Movie love stories, especially "rom-coms," usually stop with the swell of strings and all complications resolved at the best of times...and then stop, leaving us with the sugar-rush of good feelings.
But, it ain't sugar. It's saccharine, which only feels like the same thing.
So, how does Past Lives resolve itself? Do they ever meet again? Well, I'm putting up the pictures, you can see for yourself, that, yes, of course they do! Do they still love each other? Yes, of course they do! Are they still bonded to each other and understand each other in ways no one else can? Of course they do. And a lesser film-maker than Celine Song would have ended it there.
So, of course, she doesn't. Along with her lovely shot choices, her impeccable casting and direction, and her seemingly simplistic and natural writing, she manages to make something so natural and common and ever-present, and yet so singularly individual, something really big. And something to contemplate and wonder at, like the sun coming up in the morning, or looking to the horizon and wanting the best life we could possibly have. She makes it look so easy.
But, good and wise love...are hard work.
This might be my favorite film of the year.
* Yeah. Before we make a throw pillow of this or jot it down to use as conversation at dinner parties, the character who says this—Nora—will parenthetically add "
That's just something Koreans say to seduce someone." Hmm. Maybe you can use it at dinner parties.

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