Director – Celine Song – 2022 – US, South Korea – Cert. 12a – 105m
After emigrating with her family from South Korea to North America, a Korean-American is sought out in New York by her now-adult childhood sweetheart from back in Korea – out in UK cinemas on Friday, Sept 8th
Have you heard the one about the Korean woman sitting between a Korean man and a WASP man in a bar in New York? Is the Korean man her partner? Is the WASP man her partner? Following this unforgettable opening image and a voice-over in which someone tries to work out the loyalties and relationships pictured, flashback 24 years to Korea’s Seoul for a chunk of narrative also involving Canada’s Toronto. Then jump forward 12 years for a further chunk of narrative in both Seoul and New York. Finally, jump forward a further 12 years to the present day for a final chunk of narrative in New York.
Intrigued? You’ll get to know two very Korean kids, who at age 12 or thereabouts in Seoul start dating. The girl, Na Young (Moon Seung-Ah), is already choosing a Westernised name, Nora Moon, in preparation for her family’s emigration to Toronto; the boy Jung Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min) has no such conflict and is firmly locked into a Korean identity. He consoles her on when she’s upset on the sole occasion he beats her in a school test; you suspect she’s a person who is going to push hard for whatever it is she wants, while he’s more likely to go with the cultural flow.
They date, and as they hang out together in a distinctive public sculpture park under the watchful eye of their respective mothers on a nearby park bench, it’s pretty clear that he’s fallen for her, and that she likes him. Then the last day they’re going to see each other in Korea comes; they walk home silently from school, before they come to a literal parting of the ways. He says to her simply, “hey”, she says “hey” back, he says “’bye”, and they take their separate roads home. Shortly after, she and her family are in Toronto.
12 years later, the Americanised Nora (Greta Lee) is fulfilling her dream of being a writer in New York City. On a whim, she looks up Jung Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) on Facebook, only to discover that a few months earlier he put up a message trying to find her. He was unsuccessful, not least because he was searching for her as Na Young. Nevertheless, they make contact and, for maybe a few months, see much of each other virtually thanks to the linking of distant continents in different time zones via internet video chat.
Between them, there is at once a connection and a separation. He is a conservative Korean man, while she has embraced the culture of the New World and artistic growth and freedom. There is still a connection, but it’s not the same one they had as kids. For her, the person she was back then no longer exists.
They lose touch and at some point time during the next 12 years, she meets, falls for and marries fellow writer Arthur Zaturansky (John Magaro). Then, out of the blue, Hae Sung gets in touch and comes to visit her in New York. In terms of the weather, he picks about the worst time he could since the city is shrouded in constant, torrential rain, at least for his first few days there, which he watches passively from his hotel window. With Nora transparently explaining the visit of her old friend to her husband, who immediately and accurately reads it as, “he’s still in love with you”, the couple welcome Hae Sung with open arms, which is to say Nora and Hae Sung spend time together. Eventually, when Hae Sung visits their apartment, and the three go out for an evening together, the sense of the two men being from two separate worlds shifts sharply into focus.
Magaro’s role is a thankless one for an actor, his character being very much on the fringes of what the film is about. Yoo fares rather better, with a great deal more time on the screen, yet he’s most definitely a Korean character in a Korean-American movie. We see parts of his Korean life – doing national service, drinking soju in a bar with male friends – but he never feels like the film’s main event: this is very much Nora’s story of transitioning from the one culture to the other.
It’d be interesting to know what Canadians make of the film, because to me it never really gets into any sense of Canadian identity beyond that country being a gateway to the US (Nora’s parents settle in Canada, but that’s not in their daughter’s game plan and the film never really lingers on them).
Nevertheless, Lee is outstanding as she conveys a sense of the old world she has left behind and the new one she has embraced. I feel there must be many films that have explored the cultural shift of the immigrant experience, the sense of one foot in both camps, yet thus far I haven’t been able to think of one. People might suggest Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020), but that film never embodied that contradiction in one character (or one family unit) in the way this does. Here you sense that while Nora is Korean-American, the two parts joined at the hyphen are very much conflicting identities within her. And yet, somehow, she embodies that third identity – Korean-American.
For good measure, director Song – herself a Korean-American married to a New Yorker – throws in the Korean idea on In-Yun, persons who connect in different ways over a whole series of lives. In Nora’s case, that could be taken to mean her lives in Seoul, Toronto and New York, in each of which she is arguably three different people, but more broadly it refers to an ongoing cycle of reincarnation wherein people muse about their lives before and after the present one in which they find themselves. Perhaps, the film reasons, Nora and Hae Sung were lovers in a previous life, or will be lovers in a life to be. But the fact that they never quite reach that status in this life somehow adds poignancy to the story.
Song has clearly made much use of her own personal history in putting the film together. If there’s no sense of it being directly autobiographical as such, yet clearly there are autobiographical elements feeding in to the whole. She has written a remarkable script that never slips into being heavy-handed, and directed the piece with an adroit sense of purpose. A first co-production between rising US film production and distribution company A24 and major South Korean film production and distribution company CJ Entertainment, it successfully straddles both cultures. Altogether, an extraordinary film, and one that will resonate through movie culture for many years to come.
Past Lives is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, Sept 8th.