Korean-Canadian filmmaker Celine Song’s ‘Past Lives’ is not your typical romance

By Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

TORONTO — While it may sound like a perfect love story, “Past Lives” is not the romance you’re imagining.

The childhood sweethearts at the film’s centre, reunited for a few short days in adulthood after being separated as tweens, share both connection and chemistry.

But in the hands of Korean-Canadian writer-director Celine Song, upon whose life the movie is loosely based, “Past Lives” subverts expectations of the romance genre.

“The most important part of this movie was to reflect the way that our lives really feel, and the way that time feels,” Song said in a recent interview in Toronto.

“So much of the movie is about the way that time has weighed on a person: how time changes a person and doesn’t change a person at all.”

Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are separated at age 12 when she leaves Korea for Canada. They reconnect virtually 12 years later, aided by Facebook and a spotty Skype connection, but part ways again when Nora decides to focus on her writing career rather than the boy from her hometown.

At age 36, they reunite when Hae Sung travels from Korea to New York, ostensibly for a vacation but really to see who Nora has become.

“Hae Sung flew 14 hours to be here to confirm that the little girl that he loved as a little boy is no longer here,” Song said.

“He’s not here to win Nora back. He’s not here to fight for something. What he’s here to do is to close the door for himself so that he can move forward in his life.”

But that’s not to say there’s no love in the movie. Nora and Hae Sung have love for each other, but more than that, Song said, Nora and her husband Arthur are a portrait of a healthy partnership.

Arthur (John Magaro) is a white American author Nora meets shortly after saying her second goodbye to Hae Sung in her early 20s.

While another writer may have made Arthur the villain, an interloper getting in the way of Nora’s fate, in Song’s story he is a loving partner, jealous but not aggressive.

“At the heart of it, he’s able to — even then, even in the middle of feeling jealous and possessive and everything — to be like: These are the things that I’m feeling, but I know that what my wife needs is this other thing, so I’m going to give myself to that.”

None of the charactersfeelownership over one another, Song said.

“The movie is about ordinary people doing something that is really extraordinary, which is to love someone and to not put themselves first,” she said.

Song said the spirit of acceptance, rather than acquisitiveness, was paramount to the film.

The title refers not only to the younger versions of Hae Sung and Nora, but also to the Korean concept of inyeon.

Inyeon supposes that each person we connect to, we’ve known in a past life; the tie between two people grows stronger in each life.

To be so connected to someone as to marry them means you’ve known each other in 800 lives, Nora explains in the film.

“Hae Sung and Nora have an ineffable relationship. They’re not really exes. They’re not really partners. But they have an ineffable thing going on. The word that can describe that is inyeon,” Song said. “They’re inyeon.”

“Past Lives” hits theatres Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.

Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press

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