Rediscovering old heartaches in ‘Past Lives’

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Teo Yoo as Hae Sung and Greta Lee as Nora in "Past Lives." Photo courtesy of A24/TBA STUDIOS

In “Past Lives,” director Celine Song twists the knife on the all-too-familiar romantic woes that Asian immigrants like myself endure: the slow yet gut-wrenching impact of long-distance relationships and our complex relationship with fate. Using her own experiences as a backdrop, Song condenses complicated sentiments about identity and love into a simple yet stirring tale that, through the most intimate details, becomes extremely relatable.

Two decades since her family's emigration from South Korea, Nora (Greta Lee) and childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) find themselves reconnected in New York. During a fateful week, they explore the terrain of love and destiny, wrestling with the monumental decisions that have sculpted their respective lives, including Nora’s current marriage to an American man, Arthur (John Magaro).

Their encounter blossoms into a modern romance saturated with introspection and “what-ifs,” captured most vividly by the film's central theme: the concept of "In-yun” (인연). This age-old Korean belief posits that connections between people are not merely coincidental, but fated or predetermined, signaling that the meaningful people in your life were destined to be there, as well as those whose presence would eventually fade away. In the Philippines, this could be translated to “tadhana.”

Nora and Hae Sung as children in "Past Lives." Photo courtesy of A24/TBA STUDIO

It’s in quiet moments that the film's authenticity shines. Especially as Nora and Hae Sung navigate the complexities of long-distance time zones, from Nora embodying casual ease as Hae Sung remains rigidly formal, to Nora relishing her remaining moments with Hae Sung before being thrust back to reality. These ephemeral slices of life accurately depict how it feels to be powerless in the face of fate.

I would know, because I’ve lived through these moments, and I didn’t know how painful it would be to relive it on the big screen.

It was 2:00 p.m. Close to missing my flight, I met A at NAIA. Sleep deprived, she couldn't relax knowing this was the last time we might see each other.

There was trepidation and wistfulness in our eyes when we finally saw each other. Was this really our final moment together? She handed me a banner originally intended for my graduation (the ceremony was abruptly canceled due to rain).

It was an image of myself in my Sablay uniform featuring the orange hues of the "Oppenheimer" poster in the background, accompanied by pink Barbie-style text that congratulated me with the message: “Lakas naman ng ken-ergy mo.”

She was going to stay in the Philippines while I'd be nearly 9,000 miles away. We’ll be confined to digital spaces, to pixels seen and whispers heard. Each touch felt all the more urgent.

I finished my check-in and met her on the second floor. We embraced as I held my carry-on. I cherished her glow, her scent, and her warmth, mindful of the time and my approaching flight. Wordlessly, we felt the inevitable distance as time was slipping away from us, expressing a thousand unspoken sentiments through our eyes.

"Their differences in attire, composure, and general sensibilities highlighted the chasm between Eastern and Western cultures, raising an uneasy question regarding my own life: could time and distance turn A and me into strangers?"

We reached the escalator, the point where A couldn't follow me any further. She used her digicam to film me going down the escalator, while I recorded her with my phone. We finally said our goodbyes and gave each other one last hug. We both laughed as I tried to fake climbing back up. Reality pulled me back as she finally disappeared, like a setting sun slipping below the horizon.

It's rare for a film to leave me this moved, but “Past Lives” did just that. When Nora and Hae Sung reunited, I couldn't help but tear up and imagine if a similar moment awaited me. Their differences in attire, composure, and general sensibilities highlighted the chasm between Eastern and Western cultures, raising an uneasy question regarding my own life: could time and distance turn A and me into strangers?

In the opening minutes, Nora stares into the camera, seemingly breaching the fourth wall. She invites us to retrace our own heartaches and romantic setbacks, to transpose these onto the film's storyline in order to find ourselves through her life. This isn't a tale of love's new beginnings; it's a rediscovery of the heartaches we've shelved to make room for the future.

As childhood sweethearts Hae Sung and Nora navigate a New York that stands in stark contrast to their Korean roots in the film, author Ryan Oquiza was reminded of how he and his partner A were cradled by distance and molded by circumstance. Photo courtesy of A24/TBA STUDIOS

As the pair navigated a New York that stands in stark contrast to their Korean roots, I was similarly reminded of how A and I, too, were cradled by distance and molded by circumstance. Their musings on reincarnation are both an escape and a connection to a cultural heritage that validates their suffering. In a world of uncertainty, they are anchored by the familiarity of “In-yun."

Nora and Hae Sung communicate in veiled words, saying a lot without being direct. Honesty is a luxury they can't afford because life will punish them for it. “It was good that you immigrated,” Hae Sung says. “I agree,” Nora responds. Although, both know it's far from how they truly feel. Even as adults, Nora and Hae Sung are like children, confined to roles fate assigned them. Destiny reduces us all to 12-year-olds, crying and screaming at a world that’s dealt us such a bad hand.

So, we teach ourselves to understand, or convince ourselves that this is where we're meant to be. We believe in reincarnation in the hopes that life doesn’t end up being the bad guy next time. The next life could let everything fall into the right place. In the end, that life only exists in Nora and Hae Sung’s childhood.

"This isn't a tale of love's new beginnings; it's a rediscovery of the heartaches we've shelved to make room for the future."

It’s from this bittersweet backdrop that existential questions emerge. How can fate expel love as quickly as it invited it? Why does destiny offer a life of distance instead of closeness? And why does each goodbye always entail severing a piece of ourselves? These are the same questions I've wrestled with, wondering how much of my own self I sacrificed that day at the airport. The hurt was so acute and singular that I couldn't see a way past it without burying my feelings. “Past Lives” offered a reprieve I never knew I needed.

At one point, Nora ponders: “I think there was something in our past lives. Otherwise, why would we be here together right now?” Later, Hae Sung poses the question: “Who do you think we were to each other in our past lives?” And so, they dwell in this realm of make-believe, a self-created sanctuary of imagination where they can recast their own narrative and find relief from the agony that distance imposes on them. It also serves as an emotional refuge for Asian immigrants, providing a life unforced to seek brighter futures abroad and unburdened by the need to dispense parts of their identity. At least in that life, love can remain whole.

While "Past Lives" doesn't offer a fairytale ending, it doesn't need to. The beauty of the film lies in its unflinching honesty. It acknowledges the weight of each farewell, the fragments of ourselves we leave behind, and the inescapable grip of fate that binds us all. It shows us that love, even when interrupted by destiny, leaves an indelible imprint that we carry forward into our lives – even if that love is 9,000 miles away.

As the film approached its conclusion, a moment I knew all too well played out. It was as if I had been whisked back to NAIA's second floor, lost in a sea of hurried travelers who were oblivious to the emotional avalanche unfolding right beside them. I found myself in Nora’s place, staring into someone from a previous life, wondering if, in the future, life would be kinder to us.


"Past Lives" is now showing in Philippine cinemas nationwide.