Cinema has always invoked a level of voyeurism. The audience act as spectators, peering into the lives and feelings of others with unparalleled intimacy. Like many great films before it, Past Lives actively foregrounds this role of spectatorship from its very first shot. The story of the two potential lovers who meet after one moves on and marries is not exactly new. Yet, through its subtle, minimalist narrative, we are encouraged to form our own opinions on the protagonists, providing a unique approach to the classic love triangle.
The opening shot of Past Lives is a work of genius, employing the narrative framing of a group of friends people-watching. These unseen narrators theorise about the relationships of our protagonists (Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur), a relatable action, positioning the audience as spectators. We are invited to interrogate these three central characters as if we were watching them in a bar. This concept runs throughout the film as we are given a somewhat omniscient perspective, with enough evidence and agency to form our own opinions on the unfolding events. The audience are invited to evaluate every choice made by the characters, be it Nora’s emigration to North America or Hae Sung’s online search for his childhood sweetheart. No decision or consequence is truly right or wrong. It is just another ambiguous link in the cosmically huge chain of choices called in-yeon or fate.
Writer/director Celine Song also goes to great lengths not to villainize any of the three protagonists. Nora’s repeated separation from Seoul is completely justified, as is Hae Sung’s choice to pursue his career in China. The most blatant form of this opposition to a traditional antagonist is the characterisation of Arthur, Nora’s American husband. He acknowledges how he could be seen as a villain, standing in the way of Nora and Hae Sung’s potentially fulfilling relationship. Yet this acknowledgement simply serves to add depth and ambiguity to his character, revealing his vulnerabilities as a husband in one of the film’s standout sequences. He laments his own inability to fully appreciate Nora’s past life, beautifully explaining that she “dreams in a language that I can’t understand.” Thus Arthur is not a moustache-twirling antagonist, nor an odious obstacle who revels in his villainy. He, like Nora and Hae Sung, is a flawed character who we are allowed to assess, but one who feels thoroughly and wholeheartedly human.
Like many recent international hits from the twisting saga of Return to Seoul to the melancholy of Drive My Car and Decision to Leave, language plays a key role in the narrative construction of Past Lives. The language barrier is a tangible force throughout the film’s final act, with neither Hae Sung or Arthur able to converse deeply because of their lack of fluency in the others’ language. This leads to moments of deception in the brilliantly constructed bar scene, Nora translating Hae Sung’s philosophical yearning into blunt simple sentences. Again, the audience is given a position of relative agency and omniscience, with the Korean-language dialogue subtitled so that every word can be understood. Like Nora, we are allowed to see beyond the dividing barrier of dialect, viewing the narrative’s decade-spanning odyssey as an audience peering in.
Past Lives excels in many areas, including its minimalist cinematography, beautiful score and flawless performances. It’s also not a perfect film, I personally felt more time could have been dedicated to Nora and Hae Sung’s childhood relationship and the conflict between all three characters at the end. Yet Celine Song’s approach to narrative feels wholy refreshing, carefully enabling active spectatorship to interrogate every aspect of the story. Did the characters make the best choices? Was the story’s conclusion satisfying? Do the concepts of fate or in-yeon even exist, or are they just sweet stories we tell to seduce someone? Song allows us to watch the film, consider the evidence, and conclude for ourselves.