Saturday, January 27, 2024

Past Lives


Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora Moon (Greta lee) have found a soul mate in each other early on in their lives, evidenced by their inseparable bond as adolescents in early 2000’s Seoul. Their puppy love is short-lived, though, as Nora’s parents find an opportunity to migrate to Canada. While the two teenagers attempt to keep their budding relationship alive despite being separated by time zones and an ocean, they eventually drift apart. 12 years later, he has just concluded his mandatory military service while she, on the other hand, moves to New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer. An unexpected Facebook comment reconnects the two and they immediately rekindle their friendship through frequent video calls, but never get to convince one another to actually meet. After falling out, another 12 years pass. Nora is now married to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro) while Hae Sung finally gets the courage and the ticket to fly to New York, but is he 24 years too late?

And then they had lots of sex. Nah, sorry. Not that kind of movie. If anything, Celine Song’s film debut is a curious showcase of restraint, inundating you with suggestive looks full of yearning never acted upon, as well as distance in a variety of forms that frustrate you with a so-near-yet-so-far narrative. Past Lives is a teasing look at the perfect love story that is just not meant to be. Proponents of the Tagalog “Pinagtagpo ngunit hindi tinadhana” will have a field day watching this movie. Like, seriously.

An aspect of filmmaking you have to admire is Song’s use of distance, both as a concept and as a framing device. For 24 years you watch these star crossed lovers pining for each other from afar because of the literal geographic distance separating them. Flash forward to two decades later and you finally see them in one location at the same time, in one frame, yet the distance between them in most scenes just visually reinforces the widening gap between them due to their unfortunate circumstances. This is something that you usually don’t see but rather just feel yet the director manages to reiterate in the way she frames her scenes.

One takeaway from this is the role that fiction plays in our lives as human beings. Depending on the school of cinema you subscribe to, a movie can either serve as a form of entertainment that takes you as far away from real life as possible in its role as a form of distraction or mirror reality as closely as possible to serve as a critique of humanity itself. The premise of Past Lives is the perfect romantic screenplay, a love story that you can rally behind, only to slap you with a hardcore realist ending as if pulling the rug from beneath you and yelling IZZZZZAAAPRANK! This is real life, baby. And you leave the cinema rather conflicted.

In fact, one of the scenes I loved the most was Arthur going meta and telling Nora what the audience are already thinking, that he is the villain in this perfect love story 24 years in the making. In the end, the writer had the hard task of choosing between a fairytale ending that will make people feel good and a realistic conclusion that crushes your fantasies as a moviegoer but gives you a lot of realizations about life as it is. That’s why that ending hits so hard, man. Do you choose the fairytale (what could be) or your current reality (what is)?

Personally, I liked how it all turned out despite some people finding it to be too depressing. Come to think of it, aren’t all current realities fairy tales once upon a time before they transitioned into the daily, the routine, and the mundane? If Nora runs away with Hae Sung, down the line won’t their love story just end up being yet another boring but real love story like the one Nora and Arthur share right now? Bottom line: appreciate what you have instead of holding on to an ideal that has the potential to become real but might just never be. Risk analysis, children. After all, the grass will always be greener on the other side regardless where you end up.

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