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1 September 2023

Celine Song’s Past Lives and the trap of autobiographical art

This debut film of lost love is full of material that is clearly important to her. Why should it matter to anyone else?

By Ann Manov

In her debut film, Past Lives, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Celine Song tackles some big themes: the immigrant experience, intercultural marriage, and, above all, the nagging question of what happens to loves left unpursued.

Told in brief scenes separated by grand sweeps of time, here is the plot: Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are schoolmates who go on one “date”, supervised by their mothers, and spend it discussing Nora’s family’s imminent move to Canada. Asked why she’s emigrating, Nora says, “Because Koreans don’t win the Nobel prize for literature.” Twelve years pass. Nora – a student of dramatic writing in New York – sees that Hae has been looking for her via a Facebook page for one of her father’s films. They start talking over Skype, but she informs him she’s decided to focus on her life in the US as she leaves for a writer’s residency in Montauk. There, she falls in love with a Jewish-American man, Arthur (John Magaro).

Twelve more years pass. Hae visits New York, and, as Arthur – now Nora’s husband – predicts, he’s there to see her. She shows him the Statue of Liberty. They walk around Brooklyn Bridge Park, the carousel tinkling behind them. And, over drinks with her husband, they finally have a conversation about whether, in this lifetime, they were meant to be.

This conversation is in fact where the film begins. In its opening shot, voices out of frame are looking at the trio from across the bar, speculating on her relationship with “the Asian guy” and “the white guy”. Are the Asians a couple, the white guy a tour guide? Are the Asians siblings? Nora turns to camera, breaking the fourth wall. With a dramatic “24 years earlier” intertitle, we’re plunged into her childhood.

[See also: The Woman in the Wall turns the Magdalene laundries into offensive melodrama]

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With this device, Song frames her film in terms of identity. Especially in affluent New York circles, the Asian-American woman and Jewish-American husband is certainly a cliché, and it’s bold to address it. Song draws our attention to unilluminated aspects of the immigrant experience – from the difficulties of typing in a non-Roman alphabet to the pressure on the immigrant to achieve enough to justify her sacrifice.

But Past Lives is naggingly unsatisfying: the characters are not fully realised, and nor is their story. The film anticipates an impact it doesn’t earn. Near the end, Arthur says: “I never thought I’d be a part of a thing like this.” I was wondered what exactly “a thing like this” was. Before meeting her husband, Nora had some video calls with a man she had briefly play-dated as a child. A decade later – two decades since they last had physical contact – he visits New York, and this brings up some feelings of loss, but not much else.

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When all we see of Nora and Hae’s relationship are some playground tumbles, Skype small talk and strolls around New York in which they repeat “Wow!” back and forth, it’s hard to understand why it’s so important to them. All three characters consider Nora brilliant, but we’re given little insight into her work. Arthur never seems anything other than supportive and adoring (despite the gratuitous and distracting detail of his novel’s title, Boner). The performances seem stilted because the cast are not given a lot to work with – Yoo least of all, despite Nora’s aching attraction to him, which is the centrepiece of the movie.

Doing much of the work in the script is the Korean concept of “inyeon”, which Nora explains to Arthur during their first drunken date. The concept, as she explains it, is the “Buddhist” idea that any people who come into contact with each other – even brush against one another in the street – have had a relationship in a past life. He asks her if she believes that; she says it’s “just a thing Koreans say to seduce people”; and they fall into bed, in love. But does Nora believe it? When she and Hae finally speak about it, are they just flirting? In the end, we know very little about what’s important to Nora, or if she’s happy in her marriage – though, to Song’s credit, we’re left wanting more.

Song, like Nora, is a playwright with artist parents, who, having travelled from South Korea to Canada to the US, is married to a Jewish-American novelist. Her play Endlings tells the story of three older Korean women living in New York – the one snippet we see of Nora’s work is a brief glimpse of a play about three older women. The material of Past Lives is clearly important to Song, and at times the movie is aching and poignant. At other times, however, one wonders if she has fallen into a trap of autobiographical art: not justifying why it should matter to someone else.

“Past Lives” is out 8 September

[See also: John Niven’s chronicles of chaos]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain