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Oscar Musings – Past Lives

Celina Song’s Past Lives explores the complexities that two childhood sweethearts face in keeping their relationship alive, writes Srivathsan Nadadhur

Past Lives is a tale of two childhood sweethearts born out of a cliche. Na Young and Hae Sung in Seoul are on the cusp of adulthood. Celine Song establishes their adolescent love with such purity that it’s evident they find solace in each other’s company. Everything changes when Hae’s parents migrate to the US in search of greener pastures.

When they reconnect virtually many years later, Hae Sung has a new name – Nora Moon- and is a budding playwright in New York, while Young attends college, set to leave for China as part of a student exchange programme. A lot about their lives has changed (Young reminds it hasn’t), they pine for one another again but newer roadblocks continue to obstruct their relationship.

In a nutshell, Past Lives is all about the protagonists growing in and out of touch. The film is more of an inward journey into Nora and Young and their (improbable) hope of a future together. The muted colour palette, still frames, visual metaphors, the silences explore their ordinary existence, their intimate sweet-little nothings, awkwardness and their need to accept reality.

For a viewer familiar with South Indian cinema – Past Lives is 96-meets-Ninnu Kori. Nora and Young, despite their emotional intimacy, never cross their boundaries and respect each other’s choices. When Nora asks Young to not contact her for the timebeing and says ‘sorry’, the latter doesn’t want her to apologise. ‘It’s not as if we’re dating one another,’ he remarks.

Like Nora’s writer husband Arthur says in a later part of the film, he should’ve been the cold husband in a tale of two adolescent lovers, but the director complicates their choice, refusing to caricature the third wheel. When Nora discusses a day she’d spent with Young, you sense Arthur’s insecurity, it’s as if he would never know a part of her at all.

Although the scenarios and conversations are complex, there are no huge emotional outbursts, the mood of Past Lives is introspective. Nora and Young are soulmates but the tale debates if they need to stay under the same roof. The decisions aren’t easy. Nora is ambitious and yet wants to cling to a piece of her past while Young is a typical middle-class Korean, content with little pleasures.

There’s understandable awkwardness among Arthur, Nora and Young as they have the ‘tough talk’ at a pub. A part of Young is sad that Arthur is a good man, but it’s integral for him to think beyond Nora at least now. As the car leads to the airport in the climactic sequence, all the pivotal characters experience a sense of closure.

The film derives its title from the Korean belief – In-Yun – where two people are destined to meet, only if they have a past life together and how it needs to be layered 8000 times, if they’re to get married. At just over 90 minutes, Past Lives is an atmospheric beauty, a series of bitter-sweet episodes about love, nostalgia, adulthood and regret.

Within a familiar ambience, all three lead actors – Greta Lee, Teo Yoo and John Magaro – get well-fleshed-out roles that tap into the dark corners of their hearts. They handle the tricky terrains with delicate restraint, without hampering the film’s free-flowing, slice-of-life vibe. Greta is masterly while putting a lid on Nora’s emotions and yet mirroring her internal conflicts.

(Nominated in the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, Past Lives can be streamed on Lionsgate Play)

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