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“Past Lives”: Souls of Seoul

“Past Lives”: Souls of Seoul

The sad melodrama “Past Lives” by South Korean-born Celine Song succeeds in making romantic feelings neither exaggerated nor ordinary.

According to an idea that arose in Far Eastern thinking, two souls destined for each other would either bond permanently in the course of transmigration, or constantly miss each other, depending on whether or not external circumstances suited their present existence. In the semi-romantic “past lives” this idea plays an important role. Hae Sung and Young Na don’t necessarily believe this to be true, but in their tragic relationship plight they try to find solace with her. At least in another life they can imagine, they’re in a relationship. But not in its current existence, which took its first fatal turn at the end of the 1990s.

You go west, and he stays

Celine Song revisits the well-known notion of unrequited love in her semi-autobiographical debut, Past Lives. However, she dresses them in such sensitive and contemplative imagery that one can feel the tender feelings of the characters at any time. Just like her, the film’s female lead, Young Na, came from South Korea and moved to the West at the age of twelve. She and Hae-sung meet their prepubescent classmates in South Korea. But then Young Na’s parents immigrated to Canada with her and Hae Sung stayed home.

When they meet again years later via Skype, the aspiring writer who now calls herself Nora (played wonderfully by Greta Lee, a Korean-born from California) had previously tracked down the mechanical engineering student (played excellently by Teo Yu, who was born in Cologne korean city.) on Facebook, this brand new online social platform. The fallow communication is revived by its excessive use of modern means of communication.

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The two enjoy regular video calls, but increasingly notice the physical distance between their homes. On the other hand, they do not consider a long distance relationship. He is frugal and wants to stay in Seoul. She is ambitious and would like to gain a foothold in New York. There is no viable perspective for a stable partnership, which is why I disconnected again.

It was more than a decade before they met again in their late thirties, this time in person, for a two-day sightseeing tour of the Big Apple. Nora is now a freelance writer and married to a Jewish American writer. Hae Sung works as an engineer but had no profession, which is why his fiancĂ©e, who craves more wealth, demands a break in the relationship. He doesn’t seem to know how to greet Nora, for whom he’s especially come. She embraces him immediately, but with her husband in mind, who knows about the meeting but is not a macho worthy of being traded (in any case, the two men in the film who love an emancipated woman are refreshingly generous men).

Past Lives reminded many of the pre-Richard Linklater trilogy and Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film Moonlighting. Here, too, the half-lives of two people who immediately like each other are recounted in three periods, while the longer stages during which they lost contact are excluded. Still, Celine Song’s “Couple” (who wasn’t really one, he’d missed every opportunity to meet in 25 years) is more reserved than Linklater’s playful chatter and more socially accommodating than Jenkins’ gay blacks. Moreover, there is never a physical union between the American intellectual by choice and her former childhood crush, whom she once called a typical Korean because of his aloofness and passivity.

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love what if

You also don’t get a glimpse of their potentially pathetic what-if fantasies, though you do sense their inner presence through meaningful appearances and stops to talk. Through the delicate aesthetics and secretive habits of the protagonists, Song and her cast manage to achieve the rare feat of making the characters’ romantic feelings for each other seem neither fake and exaggerated nor vulgar and everyday. “Past Lives” is nothing but a secretive melodrama, in the subjunctive instead of the present, which makes it even sadder.