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Past Lives: Exquisite

Updated on: 16 July,2023 07:12 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

It’s in English and Korean with English subtitles. Catch it as soon as possible.

Past Lives: Exquisite

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeOne of the most exquisite romances to grace our screens in recent years is Celine Song’s Past Lives, now in theatres. Song explores the theme of romantic past lives and the Korean phrase “in-yeon” or destiny. Theek hai, that’s a staple of Indian cinema and especially Bollywood, we just call it janam janam ka saath —a relationship of lifetimes—and kismet—these are standard cinematic tropes, like aloo mutter. But Song transforms the standard love triangle into a reflection so delicate, wistful and melancholic, playing with the possibilities of what might have been, no wonder it was such a favourite at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals. It’s in English and Korean with English subtitles. Catch it as soon as possible.

Song, a Korean playwright who immigrated to Canada and then to the US, wrote and directed her debut film drawing on an autobiographical situation, when she once found herself interpreting between her American husband and her childhood sweetheart visiting from South Korea. Past Lives’ clever opening sequence lays bare this dilemma right away: an Asian woman sits between two men—one American, the other Asian. We overhear people at the bar speculating on their relationship. One suggests that the Asians are tourists, with their American friend. Or is the American a third wheel, given how engrossed the Asian couple is in each other, and so on.

Nora and Hae Sung were childhood sweethearts in Korea, when Nora’s family moved to Canada. Twelve years later, the two reconnect via Facebook and Skype, until Nora suggests taking a break. Another 12 years later, Hae Sun wants to meet Nora in New York: by then she is married to an American, Arthur, while Hae Sung is newly single. As they spend a few days in New York together, Arthur is thrown into emotional turmoil. Nora and Arthur met at a writers’ residency, fell in love, moved in together to save on the rent, suggesting a relationship born of practicality, now routine, versus a janam janam ka rishta. Nora and Hae Sung delight in catching up, careful not to let their emotions take over, as they speculate on what might have been, if they had been together. Each of the three is forced to reassess what they really mean to each other now. 

The potency of Celine Song’s direction comes from its elegant restraint, with a modest emotional pitch, and shot with distance between characters, allowing us room to enter and reflect on our own lost loves. She uses spare words and silences carefully, to the same effect. We see how intense a romance can be even when platonic, or perhaps because of it. Song’s quiet confidence is remarkable, especially for a debut film. There are no villains; each one is grappling with their roiling emotions, trying not to hurt the other. Contrast this with Bollywood’s melodramatic love triangle, e.g. in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam—and C Prem Kumar’s exquisite ’96 (Tamil), with long-lost childhood sweethearts, reuniting briefly as adults.  

Greta Lee and Teo Yoo are marvellously understated. Greta Lee (LA-born to Korean immigrants) gets centrestage in a way few mainstream Hollywood films allow; Lee is actress, writer, producer, who has acted in 50 films and series, including Sisters. Teo Yoo, a Cologne-born Korean, has acted in 28 films, including Leto and Decision to Leave. John Magaro is also fine as the conflicted husband. 

Song’s screenplay deftly explores the spaces between her characters’ dreams, desires and realities. Nora wanted to win the Nobel Prize, but remains an ordinary writer. Arthur protests to Nora about Hae Sung: “You’re childhood sweethearts, I can’t compete.” And when Nora asks Hae Sung, “Why did you look for me?” he replies, “I just wanted to see you one more time.” The actors’ body language is eloquent. Once, when Nora and Hae Sung lounge before a merry go round, she’s dressed in a plain white man’s shirt, unadorned; he’s buttoned-up, shy, hesitant. Her body language appears casual, but her raised knee between them appears to subconsciously keep her from doing something impetuous.

Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner and editor Keith Fraase contribute greatly. It’s an American-Korean production, backed by A24, CJ ENM, Killer Films and 2am Films, and the women crew include producers Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler of Killer Films. Such a pleasure to see this gifted director, a woman and immigrant, soar in US cinema, following Oscar winners Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland,  Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, and Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once. Not to be missed.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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