“Past Lives” opens with three people in a New York bar as the other patrons wonder who they are to each other. Celine Song’s film thus spends most of her time solving this question. Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) were childhood sweethearts in Korea before Nora’s family emigrated to Canada. They briefly reconnected online in their 20s, but work, ambition and life have pulled them apart.
Now they’ve met for the first time in two decades, along with Nora’s husband Arthur (John Magaro), who may be, by his own admission, an intruder standing in the way of an ill-fated romance. But Arthur is something else entirely, and what he and Hae Sung are to each other is where the film A24 gets most of its poignancy. It’s ultimately a film about how the places we are in shape us, and as bittersweet as it is that Hae Sung and Nora are never in the right place to be together, their connection brings Hae Sung and Arthur together.
Underscoring the magic of that connection, Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner lit the sequence between the two men like a cinematic cross between an Edward Hopper painting and an Ella Fitzgerald candlelight vigil; the romantic energy of the bar is heightened by both shadows and warm orange lights as Nora excuses herself to use the bathroom, and the two men face each other in the empty space left by the woman they both love.
“Greta Lee was in the video village while that scene was being filmed. And she was like, “This is the sexiest thing I’ve ever seen.” And I was like, ‘Exactly,’” Song told IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast. The song accentuates a sense of shared respect and loss between Arthur and Hae Sung, its kind of intimacy, through the soundtrack.
“They are not friends. But they’re not really — you can’t really say they’re rivals. That’s not how they treat each other. They’re sort of acquaintances, but a little deeper because they both care about this woman and know her differently. That’s why the song (in that scene) is ‘You Know More Than I Know’ by John Cale,” Song said. “(It’s) the perfect song for them because that’s what it is. Part of that is the mystery that they have for each other, and they’re actually making room for that mystery for each other and in each other.
Song wrote the film in both Korean and English, but acknowledged that there’s a special magic when the film lives across languages, time zones and cities. “This film is actually about the difference between languages, and it’s about the language gap. When Arthur says “Hey, nice to meet you” in Korean and then when Hae Sung says “Hey, nice to meet you” in English, when that moment happens, that’s where the movie lives.”
The song uses changes in light and shot scale to reinforce, in the language of another deeply romantic film, that three people’s problems don’t equal a mountain of beans in this crazy world. The banter sequence between Hae Sung and Arthur is in many ways the exception that proves the rule: an intimate sequence where both men are equally matched. It is Hae Sung’s bond with Arthur, as much as her bond with Nora, that is the miracle.
Their bond is also a kind of in-yun, which has no direct English counterpart, but captures how special and circumstantial it is to meet the people who influence our lives. “It’s completely magical what they’re sharing in that moment, because for some reason they (both) ended up here, and now, ‘We’re going to talk about in-yun, because that’s who we are. We are in-yun for each other and how amazing it is that this woman that we both love in such a deep way is able to connect us,” Song said.
Nothing is sexier than putting your feelings aside for the benefit of someone you love and someone else who acknowledges that sacrifice. It’s not only why the scene is designed the way Song, Kirchner and production designer Grace Yun present it, but it’s the last bit to figure out something important about both Arthur and Hae Sung. “To me, that’s what’s so interesting about masculinity,” Song said. “The strength to step aside, to take care of another person, to tell the other person, ‘It’s okay. I’m fine and you’re fine and we’re fine.’”