By Rahul Desai
In Celine Song’s Past Lives, a Korean woman and Jewish man meet in Montauk. For those who love stories, Montauk is no regular name. This is the mystical town whose meaning survives a memory-erasing procedure in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It is, in short, destiny disguised as a place. So it’s only fitting that this woman, Nora, and the man, Arthur, share their first kiss after an allusion to fate. Nora playfully explains the concept of “In-Yeon” to Arthur: When two people meet in any capacity, it means they have also met in a past life. In the case of Nora and Arthur, who are to be spouses, it implies that their paths have crossed in no less than 8000 lives. They were bound to meet (again) in Montauk. Their spiritual history climaxes into a physical future here. It’s also fitting that they are shaped by storytelling themselves – Nora is an aspiring playwright, Arthur an aspiring author, and they fall for each other at a writer’s retreat. They aren’t just two people who love stories anymore, they are a love story.
The profound conflict of Past Lives is that it is not their film. It is nobody’s film. And this narrative anxiety is the point. Past Lives pits the stories we tell ourselves against the stories that happen to us. The former – the stories we tell ourselves – is rooted in the stop-start journey of two childhood sweethearts from Seoul, Na Young and Hae Sung. They separate as 12-year-olds, when Na Young migrates with her family to the West and changes her name to Nora. Their tale goes on to span 24 years, replete with almosts, what ifs, nostalgia, karmic twists and cultural connection. It’s a tale that brings to mind the romantic ambiguity of Sally Rooney’s Normal People – where two hearts are fused not by intent but identity; where two souls keep reuniting through the perception of memory rather than the transience of passion. A passing reference to the book (and series) appears early in the film, where we see Na Young’s artist-parents listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye’ before moving to Toronto. Lyrics aside, it’s the trajectory of Cohen’s story with his Norwegian soulmate, Marianne, that tangibly inspired the fragmented forevers of Normal People as well as the name of its female protagonist.
In other words, the odyssey of Na Young and Hae Sung represents a very literary kind of longing. Theirs is the sort of long-term tragedy that legend thrives on. She leaves when they’re kids. They find each other on the internet in their twenties. Despite being in disparate time zones, he becomes her safe space in the intimidating newness of Manhattan city, and she becomes his chance to defy the linearity of tradition. Once the digital idealism wears off, she leaves again. More than a decade later, he arrives in New York as a tourist, and they finally meet in person after two decades. She is happily married, he is newly single. They take long walks. They wonder. They wander. They speak and unspeak. Their words bristle with belonging and lost-and-found comfort.
In a way, the fictions they grew up on – perhaps a Before Sunrise trilogy or an In The Mood For Love – become the stories they tell themselves. Being the ‘ordinary’ one with a 9-to-5 job, Hae Sung is the one who strives towards a timeless experience. Given how trapped he is by the conventions of living, he views love through the aspirational lens of art. It’s why he flies to another continent with a single purpose: to find Na Young within Nora. It’s like he’s trying to carve their severed togetherness into a severe story. The concept of In-Yeon is condensed – New York is expected to be the culmination of them briefly meeting in past phases of the same life. The metaphor is compressed. Every overlap feels like a lifetime ago, and their influence survives the memory-erasing nature of time itself.
Nora’s husband, Arthur, is worried about precisely this. Being a famous writer himself, he suspects that Na Young and Hae Sung’s story is one that’s impossible to resist. It has all the right elements. He senses that his own presence is nearly obtrusive, as the “asshole American” that narratives usually reduce to personality types. In one of the film’s best scenes, Arthur even jokes about his outsider status, conveying his insecurity with disarming poise. Their tangled bodies in bed, late at night, are offset by the workings of their mind. Arthur wonders if this is what Nora wanted when she moved to New York. Is this where she saw herself eventually? He mentions that when Nora talks in her sleep, it’s in Korean – she dreams in a language he does not understand. There’s a whole place, a past life, inside of her where he can’t go.
The pillow talk is poignant. It sounds like Arthur is admitting that he cannot stop Nora from reclaiming her narrative. As a storyteller, he is perhaps torn between being and mining; he is pained by this struggle, but the artist in him is fascinated by it. When Hae Sung visits, he doesn’t stop them from hanging out, just like a wildlife photographer wouldn’t disrupt the naturality of a tiger mauling a deer. He is a mere bystander in a bar as they catch up. The order of the food chain is inevitable; all he can do is appreciate and mourn the art in it. Nora’s marriage to Arthur – safe, stable, soothing – is nothing in comparison to the leap of faith and fate that Hae Sung offers. It’s the classic underdog tale, where the new guy stands no chance on paper. The ‘before’ is waiting: The blossoming of a tree is futile without its roots.
But the triumph of Past Lives is that it legitimizes Nora and Arthur’s love, without trampling over its popular ‘opponent’. The film we see features the unrequited rhythms of Hae Sung and Na Young, but the film that emerges from it isn’t something that Nora settled for; it’s something she chose. For Arthur, despite his fears, she’s not the one that got away. The hug they share at the end is both a reckoning and a relief, because neither of them got swept away by the sentimentalism of fiction. And it hurts, because a tender tragedy stared them in their face. They survive an entire history of tropes and In-Yeons. Which is to say: The married couple come to symbolize the stories that happen to us while we’re busy making other plans. Or, more specifically, they represent life itself – in all its casual depth and anonymities and muted intimacies. Storytelling is a descendant of life, which is why Hae Sung probably realizes that he was never competition to begin with. If anything, he’s the one that stands no chance against the invisible gratifications of living.
It’s why the opening shot of the film makes so much sense. It is defined by the inherent cinema of perspective. A couple off screen try to guess who these three strangers (two Asians, one ‘white guy’) at the bar are: Hae Sung and Na Young are talking bashfully, while an awkward Arthur looks like the odd one out. The unseen couple’s guesses are wrong, because they aren’t conditioned to detect the non-fictional dynamics of destiny. They aren’t used to noticing that displacement blurs the borders between moving and staying. It’s Na Young showing Hae Sung that she is Nora, an immigrant whose identity is determined by where she goes, not where she comes from. Maybe her favourite novel is Brooklyn. But it’s also an artist realizing that – unlike the 9-to-5 man she’s speaking to – she views love through the practical lens of life.
The shot where they part as 12-year-olds in the streets of Seoul hints at this. It shows Hae Sung continuing to walk on ground level and Na Young taking the stairs up to her house. He then spends the rest of his life walking straight, and striving to climb; she spends the rest of her life climbing, and striving to walk. At that moment it’s the same for Arthur, who gets reminded that, as tireless storytellers, their togetherness need not inherit the spectacle of fiction. The ship in their companionship need not be in motion.
Past Lives speaks to me on a personal level, too, because I’ve been someone who lets art dictate the way I love. I’ve always seen reality through the lingering lens of fable. The relationships I’ve had often start off as striking love stories in my head. I’ve willed some of them into mythical spaces: There are poor-boy-rich-girl and villainous-parents narratives, there are urban-loneliness and serendipitous-texts tales. We tend to feel stronger if there’s something – or someone – to defy. We tend to feel unique as underdogs fighting the odds. We tend to feel like words if a statement is made. But the love fizzles out the moment it morphs into the life it rebels against. Sometimes, we complicate things so that the excitement of healing keeps the newness alive. In the long run, though, it’s hard to sustain the giddiness of being a fantasy. There is no way to reimagine when imaginations run dry. The dissonance between the thrill of beginning as a book and ending as a stray page is difficult.
It’s only with my current partner – my longest relationship so far – that I’m learning to shed the baggage of idealism. We, too, started off as the story that novels are written about, while being cognizant of the fact that we were behaving like fiction. We united in crisis, broke hearts, acted against our principles, spoke like characters and texted like authors. It was brave and beautiful. Being in different cities only supplied the mythical energy of our bond. But once the pandemic accelerated our arrangement – she moved in with me – life came at us faster than we expected. Suddenly, the story disintegrated into shards of restless logic. We were no longer driven by destiny and desire. Habit became habitat.
Yet, the privilege of being with someone who is more of a human than a concept cannot be understated. Slowly, we’ve learned to make peace with unadorned feelings. With separate languages, sparse moods and dense thoughts. There are times she dreams in Bengali, and there are times she misses her city. There are times she speaks to an ex-boyfriend with a muscle-memory that makes me wonder if she’s simply settling for a future rather than seizing it. The anxiety of being the saner (or lesser) narrative punctures our stillness. The sight of her reconnecting with a college sweetheart is strange. Humans become stories the second we leave them behind. Relationships feel incomplete the moment we get out of them – the rearview mirror makes objects seem closer than they appear.
But there’s a finality to such exchanges, even as I watch from a distance. There’s a sense that she meets her past life through people, not people from her past lives. There’s also a sense that I’m sitting at the bar, more relaxed than resigned, hoping to trust the mundanity of our love. Once the overthinking is done and the tears are shed, the sobriety of our memories emerges; the eternal sunshine of our spotted minds shines through. It dawns upon us that we both are writers. Stories are our reality, not our refuge – and therefore life is the ultimate ambition. After confronting what if, we embrace what is. Our Montauk isn’t about remembering the past, it’s about renewing our romance with the future. Soulmates don’t dream in the same language; they exist in a shared language. After all, aspiring to live is the epilogue of living to aspire.