Early in the film, Na Young’s mother sets up a date between her daughter and Hae Sung in a park. She clicks many pictures and tells Hae Sung’s mother they are immigrating soon; thus, she wants to create good memories for her daughter. Hae Sung’s mother asks her why she is leaving everything behind. Na Young’s mother replies, “If you leave something behind, you gain something, too.” This, in essence, forms the theme of the film. One loses something but also gains something. Losing life in Korea. Gaining life in Canada. Losing an old identity. Gaining a new identity. Losing the name Na Young. Gaining the name Nora Moon. Losing a friend. Gaining a husband.
Nora meets Hae Sung in New York and tells her husband Arthur (John Magaro), “And I feel so not Korean when I’m with him. But also, in some way, more Korean.” The strange paradox reiterates the theme of gaining something while losing something. The diaspora, as we have seen, even in the case of India, loses its connection with their home country, but at the same time, the distance makes them feel more connected to their home. It is such a profound thought and can only come from someone who has truly experienced it. At another point in the film, Nora sits in a play rehearsal, and a lady says, “Some crossings cost more than others. Some crossings you pay for with your whole life.” Crossings is mentioned in the context of immigration, pointing to the same theme of losing and gaining. One crosses to get something, but there is a cost to it.
When Nora decides to stop meeting Hae Sung at twenty-four, she goes on a writer’s retreat to Montauk. It is the same place where the two lovers break up and try to erase each other’s memories in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nora stops meeting a friend but meets a new friend at this retreat. Losses and gains. But what must be mentioned is that Nora does not try to delete her old memories. Those memories have shaped her to be the person she has become today. This is why it is understandable when Nora breaks down after Hae Sung leaves in the end. She gained a lot in her life, but that does not mean one cannot mourn the things that she lost. One can grieve for something that could have been. She was grieving for the twelve-year-old girl that she left behind with Hae Sung.
The other theme in Past Lives, which also gives it its title, is the Buddhist concept of In-yeon. “It’s an In-yeon if two strangers even walk past each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives. If two people get married, they say it’s because there have been 8,000 layers of In-yeon over 8,000 lifetimes.” Nora and Arthur got married, so perhaps there were higher layers of In-yeon between them, much more than between Nora and Hae Sung. This concept is not different from Hinduism, where marriages are considered to last for seven lives. I think of the ending in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, where Sameer (Salman Khan) does not see the love for him in Nandini (Aishwarya Rai). He tells her that she can be married to Vanraj (Ajay Devgn) for the seven lives, but in the eighth life, they will be together again.
All the characters in the film deal with their own issues and heartbreaks. Nora was ambitious from childhood. She once cried in school because she came second. She tells her friends she wants to win a Nobel Prize. It is the reason she is moving countries because Koreans don’t win it. Twelve years later, she wanted to win the Pulitzer. Then, another twelve years later, she wished a Tony. Her ambitions wither down with time. On the other side is Hae Sung. He thinks he is ordinary. And no girl will marry him because of his ordinariness.
And, there is the beautiful character of the husband, Arthur. In an early scene, Arthur tries to speak to Nora in Korean even though her grasp of the language is rusty. But later, in a moment of vulnerability, he reveals the real reason. He is learning Korean because Nora speaks it in her dreams. You dream in a language that I can’t understand. It’s like there is this whole place inside of you where I can’t go. He has a bit of envy as he realizes he cannot compete with Hae Sung. He asks Nora if Hae Sung is attractive; she says he is masculine in a Korean way. Then, he follows up with her to see if she finds him attractive. But far from being the “evil white American husband,” he has the immense grace to be a human. He realizes that Hae Sung has traveled to meet his friend after all these years. There was a life to her before he met her. It is precisely why Hae Sung tells Nora that he did not realize that liking your husband would hurt this much because Arthur is a gem of a person. Remember Kabhi Kabhie, where Vijay (Shashi Kapoor) has the maturity and grace to accept that his wife once loved someone else. In the end, after Nora breaks down, Arthur helps her grieve. He would genuinely understand Nora’s emotions at that point and support her.
Not only is the film beautifully performed, but it is also lovingly shot. In Korea, when young Na Young and Hae Sung separate, their paths diverge when she walks up the stairs, and he walks into the alley. The stunning moment defines the film. When they connect twelve years later, they keep saying wow. Another twelve years later, they meet and again keep saying wow. Their first meeting in twenty-four years also happened in a park, like the one they went on a date when they were kids. When Nora shows New York City to Hae Sung, all the places they go are full of lovers talking and kissing in the background.
The film opens with three people chatting at a bar, and someone from the audience tries to guess the relationship between the three. Towards the film’s end, the narrative comes down to the same place, and the relationship between the three becomes clear. Nora and Hae Sung’s conversation at the bar brings everything they wanted to discuss for a long time. He tells her that if he keeps wondering how they would have had a life together. He understands that she had to leave because it is her, and the reason he likes her is because she leaves. Hae Sung, in this scene, is a portrait of heartbreak. A serene calmness glimmers on his face, making one feel for him. And, then, in the film’s last moment, Nora and Hae Sung wait for a taxi and do not say anything. The quietness is devastating. For a minute, I thought they would kiss each other, ruining everything, but Nora and Hae Sung are far too mature to do anything like that. He hugs her and says, “What if this is a past life as well, and we are already something else to each other in our next life?” She says she does not know, and then he leaves. The answer is, perhaps, yes because every moment that passes by immediately becomes a part of our past life.