This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
There's a moment in Past Lives where Nora is lying in bed with her husband, Arthur. They live in New York, though Nora was born in Korea. Arthur tells her that, when she talks in her sleep, she talks in Korean. Nora is surprised, but the idea makes Arthur uneasy. “I don't know,” he says. “I guess I get scared.” He fears that though their relationship is conducted in English, she still dreams in Korean, meaning there's a part of her identity he cannot access. “You dream in a language that I can't understand.” Arthur's confession underpins one of the many themes of Celine Song's debut film – the role language and culture plays when it comes to romantic relationships.
Past Lives tells the story of Nora/Na Young (played by Greta Lee), who grows up in Korea with her friend Hae Sung (Tee Yoo). Their friendship comes to an abrupt end when Na Young's family emigrates to Canada. Twelve years pass and Na Young (now called Nora) is living in New York as a playwright. She and Hae Sung reconnect over Facebook and video calls, without ever meeting in person. Eventually, Nora says she needs to step away and focus on her writing. (For all its wonders, Skype and FaceTime can never replace touch, as all long-distance couples painfully know.) Another twelve years pass, and Nora, now married to fellow writer Arthur (played by John Magaro), meets up with Hae Sung, this time in person in New York.
National cultures and identities play a large role in Past Lives. Indeed, the film's title is not just a vague reference to the characters' childhoods; it refers to the Korean concept of inyeon. “It means providence or fate. But it's specifically about relationships between people,” as Nora explains to Arthur. “It's an inyeon if two strangers even walk past each other in 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.” Whilst the concept is Korean, the film suggests that inyeon can transcend national boundaries. After all, it's Arthur in America she's explaining this to, not Hae Sung. But then again, she follows her explanation by saying, “that's just something Koreans say to seduce someone.”
With the concept of inyeon in mind, it's understandable that the audience should feel pulled towards the idea of Nora and Hae Sung being together. After all, the film charts their relationship from childhood, not Nora's with Arthur. But it's with Arthur she ends up. There are, however, cultural and linguistic gaps that Arthur cannot fill – gaps that Hae Sung can. In an attempt to feel closer to her past, Arthur has tried learning rudimentary Korean. His attempt will elicit sympathy from anyone with a bilingual partner, but it's not enough to hold a conversation. Nowhere in the film is this more starkly shown than the scene where the three of them are sat in a bar late at night; Nora, with her back to Arthur, is deep in conversation in Korean with Hae Sung, while Arthur, feeling about as wanted as a punch in the face, quietly nurses his drink.
The image of lonely people sitting at a bar after midnight will be familiar to anyone who's seen Lost in Translation, Sofia Coppola's beautiful, if imperfect film that celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Coppola's film, however, looks at two Americans, Bob and Charlotte (played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson) who find connection against the backdrop of a foreign city, Tokyo. Neither Bob or Charlotte can sleep, their jet-lag a convenient cover-up for their emotional anxieties. It's in the bar of their luxury hotel where they first strike up a conversation. That conversation leads to friendship — perhaps something more than friendship. The two Americans find a new lease of life eating take-out and singing karaoke with each other in the Japanese capital.
Bob and Charlotte's relationship doesn't just flourish because of their shared feelings of foreignness in Japan. Both are in unfulfilled marriages and find a feeling of comfort in one another. But they bond over their shared experience as outsiders in Japan – marvelling at some parts of the culture, whilst dismissing others. There is an uncomfortable Orientalist tinge to Lost in Translation – the American visitors react to Japan and the Japanese with amazement, confusion, appreciation and frustration. (Nowhere is this more apparent than the awkward scene between Bill Murray and a Japanese prostitute, where accent issues lead to various unsexy misunderstandings. It's a scene where one waits for it to finish.) Lost in Translation is sadly riddled with stereotypes, ultimately detracting from the film's emotional capacity.
Both Lost in Translation and Past Lives are set against the backdrop of globalisation. And whilst there have always been films about people falling in love in foreign countries (Casablanca, anyone?), both films situate their characters in their respective contemporary moments, where people and products cross the globe with greater ease than at any other time in human history. Bob is in Tokyo to shoot a whiskey commercial for a Japanese company, whilst Charlotte is accompanying her photographer husband on a shoot. Nora's family in Past Lives, on the other hand, emigrate for economic reasons; Arthur at one point fears that Nora married him in order to secure a green card residency. Neither film addresses politics head-on, but both are clearly set in a radically changing world – and explore the emotional and personal consequences of globalisation.
Unlike most films ostensibly about love, Past Lives and Lost in Translation go beyond the reductionist binary of love that ‘works' and love that doesn't, instead interrogating the idea – beloved in Western capitalist democracies – that there is a single one ‘right person' for each of us. Despite its protagonists being unhappily married (or merely going through a midlife crisis), Lost in Translation resists the temptation to bring the couple together, even for just one night. (The film does, however, allow them a single kiss at the end, apparently an improvisation of Murray's, that potentially weakens the film.)
The best sequence in Past Lives comes right at the end. It's the night after their long talk in the bar, and the camera tracks Nora and Hae Sung as they walk down the street from her apartment and wait for Hae Sung's Uber to take him to the airport. They wait in silence – an agonisingly long time in an unbroken take. We want to reach into the screen and push the pair together. The car arrives, and they share a lingering if regretful hug. Hae Sung gets in and the car drives away. The camera then follows Nora back to her apartment down the street. Arthur is sat on the front step waiting for her, smoking a cigarette. She bursts into tears. Rather than getting angry or bitter, as would happen in most films, Arthur instead embraces his wife and the two of them go back inside together. Herein lies the emotional maturity of Past Lives. Whereas most films treat love with the simplistic reductionism of a Hallmark card, Past Lives treats its audience with respect by acknowledging the painful contradictions at the heart of love. That we can hold ambiguous feelings for more than one person and that feelings for one person do not automatically wipe out feelings for another. Most importantly, the film acknowledges that these feelings in no way invalidate the experience of being in a committed relationship. Rather, the film bravely acknowledges that the best way to be in a relationship is not to stifle these all too human feelings but instead to communicate them – in whatever language we share. In this way, Past Lives tells us more about the human heart than most films could aspire to. There are a thousand love stories on film, but very few films about love.
In both Past Lives and Lost in Translation, the central couples are not really couples at all. Neither are consummated. Coppola and Song's films join the long list of screen romances that remain undeveloped – from Brief Encounter to In the Mood for Love. These films acknowledge that our emotions can remain unexplored and that we all, as psychotherapist Adam Phillips puts it, ‘share our lives with the people we have failed to be.' (The fact that Past Lives' central character is a playwright called Nora is surely a reference to Ibsen's A Doll's House, a play about a woman confronting the realisation that her life could have been different.) Neither Past Lives nor Lost in Translation is a tragedy for not seeing their central characters ending their marriages and starting relationships anew. Both simply acknowledge that the capacity for human feeling goes beyond our social constructs and customs.
Significantly, both films end with a car on the way to the airport. Both acknowledge in their final frames that the story isn't really over (unlike the countless films that suggest the lives of the characters effectively end once they've declared their love). Instead, the characters continue moving. There is such a thing as perpetual motion. It is the movement of goods, ideas, capital and people throughout our interdependent, runaway world. As Hae Sung shows us, we can chase our feelings around the world; or we can fly around the world to run away from our feelings, like Bob. For all their stillness and moments of calm contemplation, both Past Lives and Lost in Translation are evidence of a world on the move. Neither film is a final destination for their characters. They are just a stop along the way before they move onto somewhere else.
Past Lives is out in UK cinemas