Song: Past Lives (2023)

Past Lives, Celine Song’s debut film, starts with three figures at a bar – a Korean, a Korean-American and an American – as a couple of other people speculate on the relationship between them. So slowly does the camera zoom in on this opening tableau that it initially seems (and film convention might instruct us to think) that we are hearing a conversation between the threesome. Instead, it turns out that what we’re listening to is a voiceover, a fragment of dialogue from two people who we never see, and have no further role to play in the film. It’s a concise statement of purpose, indicating that Past Lives will be telling us the story of the these three characters from the inside out, with little regard for what a typical American audience might imagine of them, or project onto them, or even demand from them.

From there, we shift to South Korea twenty-four years ago, where the high school friendship between Nora (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) is brought to an abrupt end when Nora’s family emigrates to Canada. The action then jumps forward twelve years, to New York, where Nora, now played by Greta Lee, is working as a playwright, when Hae Sung, now played by Teo Yoo, contacts her out of the blue. They chat and make plans to meet up, before Nora decides to end their communication, at which point the narrative jumps forward another twelve years. Nora is now married to Arthur, a Jewish writer played by John Magaro, and taken aback when Hae Sung calls to say that he is planning to travel to New York, and wants to meet her. Finally, in the closing act of the film, Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur spend time together, although this only seems to dissociate and diffuse their relation to each other.

As that eccentric and experimental plot structure might suggest, Past Lives identifies itself with the diasporic sweep between South Korea, America and the world. With the action unfolding over twelve year spans, between two characters who don’t ultimately know each other very well, the final reunion, when it does occur, feels both too gradual and too sudden – more like a concatenation of all the contradictions inherent in being an immigrant than a discrete event in itself, especially since Nora has immigrated twice by this stage, first to Canada and then to the United States. Song beautifully pairs this diasporic experience with the early days of Facebook, which is when Nora first links up with Hae Sung after the first twelve-year period elapses – a heady era when connections that seemed buried in the distant past could suddenly be renewed with the click of the button, ushering in a strange atemporality that laid the platform for the diffused time of social media as we now know it.

Song uses this distinct period in time to generate a diasporic spatiotemporality that percolates through the hypnotic and tracelike rhythms of the film, which in turn subsist on the continuous slow pans from one object to another – and from the New York skyline to the Seoul skyline, as if to situate the action in the connective tissue between these two spaces, or in the affective continuum between departing and arriving. There’s very little in-person dialogue for the first half of the screenplay, as messages, missives and encounters fail to fully link up, or to arrive at their destination, in an echo of the too soon-too late quality of every one of Nora and Hae Sung’s encounters. Nora explains this dispersed affect in terms of the South Korean notion of inyeon – a connection between people that exists in both future and past lives, and that continually refracts its present form through what comes after and before.

By the time that Nora and Hae Sun meet up in person, Past Lives has situated itself within this inyeon, producing a diasporic pastoral, the bliss of homeland in the midst of flux, that often reminded me of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari. Seoul and New York gradually fuse into a global ether, melded into the heavy rain that follows Hae Sun to New York, where he spends a couple of days walking around the city with Nora. Their perambulations transform Manhattan into a cosmic immigrant gateway, a series of infinitely reticulated thresholds, starting with an enormous expansion of the film’s trademark pans along the Queens foreshore, where they gaze out at Roosevelt Island amidst an oceanic flux of water, wind and trees. Those breathless thresholds continue into their cruise up the Hudson and East Rivers, as the shots of the city from the prow restore New York as an immigrant destination, and texture their relationship with an immanent awareness of all the people who have arrived from somewhere else. You feel a distant echo of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in these waterborne moments, all the more so because Whitman’s context feels so remote in time and place – these are, surely, the people he envisaged on the river in decades and centuries to come, only imaginable to him in negative terms, as beings utterly unlike and yet commingling with him.

Beyond a certain point, then, Nora and Hae Sun feel almost incidental to Song’s broader diasporic tone poem, which disperses its two lead characters into the mobile and mercurial space that exists between them. This space is, in effect, what constitutes their relationship, as Hae Sun acknowledges when they speculate on what alternative future might have ensued if Nora had remained in Seoul. He observes that she loved her for who she is, which is someone who leaves, and someone who was always going to leave South Korea in particular; she notes that she is no longer the girl who left Seoul, but that a part of that girl remains with Hae Sun, and indeed only lives through him. This capacity to find presence in absence, and connection in distance, is the heart of both the immigrant experience and of inyeon – of diasporic inyeon – as Song presents it, and culminates with the last moment between the two characters, as they wait outside for the Uber that is going to take Hae Sung back to the airport.

This is the last diasporic threshold in the film, and accordingly recalls the mercurial aesthetic of the scenes that take place in and around the waters of Manhattan. The sound of the traffic echoes the water, wind and leaves of the Queens foreshore walk; close enough to be audible, but just distant enough – maybe a street or two away – to settle into an ambient liquidity. As Nora and Hae Sun stare at each other, their gaze, their lives, and the entire film is absorbed into the space between them, which brims with such sentience and prescience that to kiss almost seems inadequate, as does any other kind of physical consummation. Instead, they wonder whether they are in a past life right now, existing as a mere refraction of their future (or present) selves, at which point Song cuts to their last farewell as children in Seoul before the Uber arrives and leaves their last frozen posture hanging as a figment of the diasporic ether that persists to the final shot. As Hae Sun’s taxi crosses the Queensboro Bridge, the camera pulls back to immerse him in the slipstream of traffic heading in the same direction, before directing our gaze to the Brooklyn Bridge hanging proximate but parallel in the background. In these final seconds, the past and future lives of Nora and Hae Sun are figured as a series of receding bridges, and as an endlessly recursive diasporic longing that is always leaving, and always arriving, and strangely attuned, in its uncanny sense of estranged homeliness, to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.”

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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