‘Past Lives’ Appreciation Essay: Here’s why Celine Song’s Debut Feature Is The Most Beautiful Movie of 2023

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'Past Lives' Appreciation Essay: Here's why Celine Song's Debut Feature Is The Most Beautiful Movie of 2023 - The Movie Culture`

Every day I find myself falling in love. Hopelessly and cynically in love. I create a story in my mind of what it would be if the interaction was not just a glance. If I did not think the worst of every situation. If in place of my “glass half empty ideologies” was a shared cup of coffee. 

My myriad of emotions could be caused by a man who happened to be on the same train as me, wearing a billowing white shirt. A fashion choice made innocently, unaware of the effect simplicity has. It could simply be how a person has an uncanny resemblance to a character from a series that I obsessed about over a year ago. When I stared at him for a second too long to wonder what he reminded me of, and he turned to smile at my confusion. When I realized that he reminded me of a past love. Even if it was a fictional one. Maybe if I had told him my name and not that he was the antagonist of Gaiman’s fictional realm, he would have asked me to sit down. Maybe when he mentioned that Corinthian inspired his look, I asked him what he thought of the series, and not walking away, he would have joined me. Maybe the story would be longer because then we would not be strangers in this life. Or the time when I made a beautiful woman blush. She came and sat beside me, saying that I had made her day. We talked for long and now we are going book hunting. Strangers for some time and then something to someone. 

Celine Song adapted her life for A24’s most subtle and delicate film to date, Past Lives. She wrote a love story that dreams of the future while her characters are still exploring their past. The movie shared the most beautiful thoughts with me. Inyeon.

What it means to have Inyeon with someone…

“Inyeon is the connection between people — the red string of fate which tangles together across different lifetimes. Inyeon can be falling in love with someone, asking your friend for a ride home or ordering from the waiter at the restaurant you go to when there is no food in the fridge. If two strangers walk by each other on the street and their clothes accidentally brush, that means there have been 8,000 layers of inyeon between them.” 

We are all strangers to each other till the time we are not. We are all something to someone. The amount of history we all have, we carry with us we are part of is so magnificent. It is a thread tying us all together. I loved the thought. I love to believe that everyone I know right now is because everything in my life has built up to it. Every thank you, every look, and every interaction contributes to what will happen. What can happen. Celine Song wanted the audience to be in the story while we write our own. In a way, I had inyeon with everyone in the theatre. 

Past Lives is a romantic story. Not in the way of big love. It is about domesticity. About staying. About choosing your life. About how your past will be a part of your future, and yet you choose to let it sit as you continue moving ahead. It is a story of identity. Song explores love alongside personal identity. Past Lives concentrates on the life of Nora, Korean name-Na Young (Greta Lee), since she was a child and had feelings for her classmate, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). They would walk back home from school, and just when their relationship solidified, she moved out of Korea. Only 12 years later did the two connect again.

Na Young and Hae Sung’s love story is free of time. They reconnected after 12 years, and their connection was the same as before. They wanted to see the world from each other’s perspective. As they became closer, Na Young realized that even if they were miles apart, they would upend their futures for the past that ties them together. She told them they should take a break from whatever they were. Only 12 years after this conversation did they reconnect. He came to meet her in New York. She was married. He went knowing she was married.

I was terrified to think that the story would be about Nora and Hae. I did not want this to be a big love story. I did not want it to be a big proclamation. Life is not like that. Love doesn’t have to be impractical. It doesn’t have to be messy. It doesn’t have to be about suffering or perseverance. You don’t have to be available just because suddenly your past is. Thankfully, that is not the story. 

Greta Lee was so expressive. Every movement was so meaningful. Her glances, sighs, confused exasperation, or silent joys. They were also so clear and perfect. You knew exactly what Nora was thinking at any moment. Her chemistry with John Magaro, who played her husband, Arthur, was so lovely. I rooted for them. I had a conversation about this movie where I mentioned that I did not want Nora to be with Hae. I was told that I rooted for the wrong couple. But just having history is not enough. Just because Hae knows a side of Nora that Arthur can never know does not automatically mean Hae is right for her. Nora is the one to choose. Not Greta, Celine, or us viewers. 

Celine Song and her way of making love feel realistic in Past Lives

There is a scene in the movie where Arthur tells Nora that sometimes she sleep-talks in Korean. He mentions how there is a whole side of hers that he can never understand or be in. I love how Celine makes all love seem so realistic. She doesn’t let anything be absolute. Nora questions her identity as a Korean Immigrant. She wonders if she is Korean enough. She wonders if she did the right thing by taking a break with Hae. She tries to balance her relationship with Arthur and Hae. I loved that Arthur did not try to intervene the days Nora was meeting Hae, but his distress was clear. His need to know that even if Hae was in the part of Nora’s life that he can never be in, he is there in the part that she would not leave.

The story was so fragile that when the interval card came on screen, the audience collectively gasped. We were holding our breath. We were enchanted. Everything about this movie was so dreamy, even though the story was so realistic. Past Lives is easily the most beautiful story that I have seen. Inyeon is hope and consolation, and Celine Song deserves all the praise.