‘Past Lives’ film is more than a love story

Written by on June 8, 2023

In the new film Past Lives, there’s a scene in which the main character, Nora, reunites over Skype with Hae Sung, her long-lost middle school sweetheart from South Korea.

“You used to cry a lot. Why don’t you cry now?” Hae Sung asks, remembering the sensitive classmate he used to console regularly.

Nora responds matter of factly: “I used to cry a lot but I realized no one cared.”

Earlier in the film, just after the two say goodbye in South Korea, we see young Nora on a plane to Canada, where she immigrates with her parents. And then a brief scene of her as a new kid at a mostly white school in Canada: She is standing alone against a wall as other children talk and laugh in a tongue she doesn’t understand.

Past Lives is the debut film by Korean Canadian playwright Celine Song that’s based on her life. The movie has been described as a modern-day romance, a fresh take on a love triangle that spans three decades and three countries. The film, which garnered rave reviews at Sundance and Berlinale, is a meditation on former flames and current partners. It’s a love story many can relate to: the feeling of connecting with someone, the loss of a meaningful relationship, the questions about fate and destiny.

But the movie resonated with me for different reasons.

Past Lives is also a film about immigration, asking questions about what the experience does to a child and pushing us to think about what we leave behind and how our environments shape us. That was the most salient theme for me, an immigrant twice over.

When Song was in Chicago last month for an interview, I asked her whether the exchange between Nora and Hae Sung about tears was a commentary on immigration. The question surprised her.

“You’re the first person who talked to me about that piece of dialogue,” Song said. “I always think it speaks volumes about what Nora is going through in the film.”

I watched the movie at a private screening downtown with a couple of other journalists. I sat in the screening room wondering if anyone else was clenching their jaws resisting tears, and whether the brief scenes and dialogue around immigration and displacement resonated with any of them.

Song, who like Nora moved from South Korea to Canada with her parents at age 12, said the experience of displacement leads to “a bit of a toughening … becoming stronger in a way,” transforming the movie’s heroine from a sensitive girl to a steely woman.

To be sure, many difficult experiences — violence, trauma, poverty — can lead to this hardening. I think often about survivors of gun violence and asylum-seekers who cross jungles and rivers. For everything my family experienced, countless people experience worse.

And yet I cannot help but wonder how much more emotionally attuned and, well, healthy, I might have been had I grown up in a stable environment.

As a kid who moved from South Korea to Paraguay and then to the United States, I had an acute sense of the futility of tears. I couldn’t burden my parents, who were busy just keeping our family afloat. I also knew they couldn’t really help because of limits to their time, money and language.

A couple of years ago, my daughter had a playdate with soon-to-be first grade classmates at her new school. All the kids knew each other from the previous year and were busy chasing one another on the playground. My child tried to tag along but went mostly ignored. At one point, she gave up and walked over to my husband and me.

She looked up at us as tears flooded her eyes.

“I feel so lonely,” she said, beginning to sob.

As my whole insides crumbled, I wiped as many tears as I could and hid her face in my chest. I said to her, “I know, but it’s because you’re new. It takes time to make friends.”

I also said, firmly, “Let’s try not to cry though, ok?” I felt my husband’s glare but got our daughter to take some deep breaths. After some minutes, everyone went into the school cafeteria and played “Simon Says,” a much more communal activity. We survived the afternoon.

Driving back from the playdate, I felt two strange emotions surge inside of me: shame and jealousy. How could she cry so easily in public at this age? Why can’t she be tougher? Why does she get to cry and be comforted when so many people don’t? Why should I have to see and feel her pain?

Stellar parenting, I know.

Later that night after our daughter went to bed, I talked about this with my husband. He said, “That’s our job — to absorb that for her and be there in those moments.”

He — a much more emotionally healthy and gracious human due in part to his idyllic and stable upbringing — has heard many of my immigrant stories and knows I didn’t have the privileges and support our daughter has. He also knows how those conditions continue to manifest themselves in me now as a grown woman, for better or for worse, and how parenting has had a way of surfacing some of that unresolved pain.

At the end of Past Lives, after the love story is more or less hashed out, there’s a scene that Song describes as a release of sorts. The filmmaker says Nora cries the tears suspended from childhood, for “all the what-ifs and all the possibilities of another life” and “[grieves] the little girl that she never got to grieve.”

Futile and, yes, still embarrassing, as they are, I, too, shed some tears in the dark of that screening room. It was only after everyone had left the theater that I allowed myself to wipe them from my face.

Past Lives opens in select Chicago theaters June 9.

Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.

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