Movies, movies and more movies — and the 21st-century has given us platforms and possibilities that are overwhelming. Our local theaters still, but now PBS, Amazon, Acorn, Netflix, and BritBox too. What do we do with it all?
While most movie-making passes us by, the stories told and sold, and soon forgotten, sometimes there is a film that stands out as something more, as about something that matters more. In her directorial debut into the wider world of filmmaking, with “Past Lives” Celine Song has told a story like that, with surprising simplicity offering a film about the long friendship of a woman and a man who together wonder what their relationship means, about what they are supposed to “mean” to each and for each other.
Simply said, it is a story about the meaning of meaning.
Stretched between Seoul and New York City, and therefore between Korean and American cultures, the film begins on a school playground when the two are children, with affection and innocence forming a friendship that might have been forever — except that it is disrupted when the girl moves with her family to Toronto. Ten years later they are in graduate schools, and through the strange wonders of social media, “find” each other again, her studying writing in NYC, and him engineering, still in Seoul. They are enamored, young adults that they are now, and all through the hours of the day and night, the times zones of the world between them, they talk and talk and talk, each one aware of something deeper that binds them together, kindred souls that they are, almost sure that they always have been.
Early on the Korean word, “inyun” is offered as a way to understand the mysterious sense they have for and about each other, a connection that they can hardly communicate and yet is at the center of the story. Fate? Providence? The way things are supposed to be? And all of that interpreted through the lens of Asian Buddhism with its belief in “past lives,” of the millions and millions of reincarnations that make us “us,” the people who see and hear and feel in the ways that we uniquely do.
Twenty-four years after the girl left Korea for Canada, the two meet again in Manhattan where she now lives with her husband, and they spend a few days together after most of life apart. Surprisingly there are no love-triangles, at all, the inevitability of adultery of some kind creating dramatic tension; that is not this story. Instead the film is a serious reflection on commitments and choices, and the consequences that they have for the lives we live.
If anything the story is about the meaning of love, set within the tension of the meaning of life. Does “fate” make sense of being human? Do the connections that come in ordinary life “just happen,” like the act of brushing by someone on the sidewalks of our lives, wondering who they are and why they are — and perhaps wondering whether we have known each other in a “past life” that somehow gives more meaning to this life? Is an idea like chance informing our “chance encounters” enough to make sense of what we experience?
“Past Lives” poignantly wrestles its way through the most understandable hopes of the human heart. To love and be loved. To know and be known. To make sense of making sense. To see my life as written into the meaning of life. Nothing cheap is offered. There is a tender beauty to the story, full of longing as it is — and when the film ends, there is still longing, even with it being an unusual cinematic statement about a truer love than most movies ever imagine.
Human beings as human beings long for meaningful lives. All of this cannot just be about that? All that I am, all that I want to be, must be about more than what my senses sense, than what my experience can understand? There must be more. In fact, to be human is to long for more than we know, for more than we experience, for more than we imagine, for something somewhere that seems more real, more true, more right. “Past Lives” is a surprising story about these questions, with longing threading its way through love, hoping against hope that my ordinary life has more than ordinary meaning.
Can we make sense of making sense? Wherever we are in the world, we long for that. Articulate or not, conscious or not, we want that as much as we want anything. With “inyun” offered as a way to understand our past, our present, and our future, the question at the end is whether fate can sufficiently explain all that is and will be, making sense of the days of our lives. Does what I believe about all of life, the whole of reality, history from beginning to end, help me to understand this moment and this day?
At this very point, the materialist West and the pantheist East kiss each other, the one believing in an absolutely quantifiable reality, of counting and quantifying everything that is, “determined” as must be in a deterministic universe. I am my DNA, first and last. And the other a completely illusive reality, of lives lived and lived again, “fated” by fate to keep on keeping on into the future. I am my past lives, nothing more, nothing less. But in both, all that we are, all that we imagine, all that we hope, is finally and fully born of an impersonal universe where the cosmic dice has been rolled, and where fate is “god,” giving ultimate explanatory power and meaning to life in a world where the only realties are time and chance.
As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, we long for more than that, for life and love to mean more than that.