The Rise and Fall of Sung and Young
My DVD indulgence these days, seeing as you didn't ask, is the first season of True Detective, which after the pretty thin gruel of Lovecraft Country feels like a rich gourmet burger with seasoned fries. The reason I mention it is a quote from quite early on, when Matthew McConnaughey's character comments on the unhelpful illusion of selfhood that the aggregation of successive sensory-impressions inevitably creates – the idea that we are somehow singular and distinct individuals, that the me that started writing this column 22 years ago is in some concrete sense the same me who is battering away at a worse-for-wear keyboard even now.
It's a useful notion, it feels true, but don't let a philosopher get near it – discussions of 'what is self?' can run for many pages even in pop-philosophy books. The idea of a unified progressive self is dubious in the way that common-sensical ideas about the solidity of matter are dubious in the face of modern physics, but we retain them both because life would be virtually unliveable if we tried to keep them in mind all the time. But it's a fruitful area for the right kind of exploration, which brings us to writer-director Celine Song's Past Lives.
Past Lives opens with a voiceover from a group of observers looking at three people in a New York City bar in the small hours of the morning, and wondering what the relationship between them is. There is an Asian man (Teo Yoo), an Asian woman (Greta Lee) and a white man (John Magaro). Are they colleagues? Friends? If there is a romantic relationship in play, who is involved with who? It is initially hard to tell, and the woman turns and smiles calmly down the lens of the camera.
We find ourselves in Seoul around the time of the turn of the century, where tweenie girl Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) is good friends with her classmate Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) – they are also quite competitive, but not aggressively so. When Na Young idly mentions to her mother that Hae Sung is the kind of person she might one day marry, her mother suggests the two of them go on a date (with parents in the background). But this is just a gesture towards parental kindness, as Na Young's mother and father have already decided to emigrate from South Korea to Canada – Na Young and her sister are already picking out their western-style names. Hae Sung and Na Young say goodbye.
Twelve years pass. (This is the caption Song chooses to use for the transition in the film rather than the more usual 'Twelve Years Later' – it's an interesting decision, perhaps creating more of a sense of an unfolding story, rather than more conventional flashbacks and flashforwards. Hae Sung has completed his military service, Na Young (now Nora) is studying in New York. Their lives seem worlds away from each other. And then Nora learns of a message from Hae Sung left on her father's Facebook page, apparently searching for her.
I would go on, but I'd just end up describing the whole story of the film to you – this is by no means a particularly convoluted or involved story; you could probably summarise every key event in it on the back of a postcard. And yet something about the very simplicity of this film permits it to reveal profound truths about people and the way we live our lives.
In short, it is a story of roads not taken, of butterfly wings, of the treacherous allure of our memories of the past, especially when compared to the harsh and prosaic realities of the here-and-now. All this is thrown into sharper relief than usual by the experience of Nora (whom the film really revolves around) – for her the past really is another country, and one where they speak a different language too. It plays with the notion of destiny, that some things are meant to be (or meant not to be), partly exploring this through the Korean concept of in-yeon; a form of karmic connection you share, to some degree, with everyone you ever meet. But many things are left unspoken; the atmosphere often feels loaded with unexpressed emotion and the potential for change – it is, I am led to understand, in some ways quite reminiscent of Before Sunrise (it's always a bit awkward when everyone else's reference point is a film which you've personally never actually seen).
For me there is not one scene, one moment, one line in this film which does not ring true, or feels like something contrived to advance someone's idea of how a story has to go. In this sense it is a realistic or naturalistic film – but the sounds and images brought to the screen have a casual beauty to them without ever seeming like the work of an art director or cinematographer. This feels like reality brought to the screen, made beautiful without seeming idealised.
The same is true of the performances of the three leads, none of whom are ever actually caught acting. I suspect Greta Lee will get all the attention, not least because her character represents Celine Song herself, but the other two are equally good throughout. Like the rest of the film, these are performances made up of tiny, significant details that build up to create something remarkably engrossing and affecting.
Not a very great deal happens in Past Lives by conventional standards – well, quite a lot happens, but over nearly a quarter of a century – and I would imagine it might be a tough pitch if someone were to ask me what it was about: 'two childhood sweethearts meet up many years later, now living in different countries – and one of them is married to someone else.' That really doesn't sound like much, does it, but this is honestly one of the outstanding films of 2023 so far, filled with poignancy, humanity, warmth, and insight. It will be a major outrage if this film isn't everywhere during awards season next year.