This article contains Past Lives spoilers.
Nora and Arthur are both writers, though chosen mediums diverge. She is a playwright who once dreamed of a Pulitzer but would now settle for a Tony; he is a novelist whose books sell well enough to help afford an apartment in the eye-watering real estate of New York City’s Lower East Side. But not a big apartment. Both know what makes a good story, and yet one of the most intriguing aspects of their marriage is that only Arthur sees—or perhaps is the only one who allows himself to see—the literary sweep of their lives.
And how much hackier it could have been in lesser hands.
“What a good story this is,” Arthur remarks midway through Past Lives, drawing attention to the unlikely series of events which compose his and Nora’s experiences, as well as the film we’re watching. “Childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years later, only to realize they were meant for each other. In the story, I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.” He’s not wrong.
You know what that movie would be because you have seen it many times before. A love triangle in which a third wheel stands in the way of destiny, fate, or, indeed, the Korean concept of In-Yun. This archetype is at best a fool and at worst a villain. Either way, he remains an obstacle who must be overcome—and he’s often played by James Marsden or Patrick Dempsey. Neither Arthur or Nora are screenwriters, but they are implicitly aware of the Hollywood version of their life’s story, and by extension so is writer-director Celine Song whose debut film in Past Lives is an achingly beautiful triumph.
Arthur’s cheerless awareness of that alternative series of events is one of the many things that gives Past Lives its delicate grace too. Played by John Magaro as a proper bearded millennial who’s somehow squeaked out an existence beyond the wilds of Brooklyn, Arthur is not our main character nor the most important to Past Lives’ story. This film truly is the love story Arthur described, and it’s between childhood sweethearts all grown up: Nora (Greta Lee), whose family moved to the West when she was a child, and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who stayed behind.
Theirs is the bitterest of bittersweet romances, albeit one that can never truly be realized in the saccharine way Arthur jokes about (and perhaps fears). Life is a series of choices, some made by us and some made for us. Cumulatively, however, they amount to a set of memories, thoughts, ideas, and finally an identity. In the case of Nora and Hae Sung, those identities became a chasm which can never be filled, even when they are at last in the same city for the first time in 20 years. A defining aspect of that, of course, is that Nora is married to Arthur, a man she loves, even as she is haunted by the road not taken every time it beckons to her inside Hae Sung’s sad eyes.
Arthur is the obstacle of the love story we are watching, but he is also the catalyst for Past Lives’ greater complexities. As Nora scoffs at her husband during his aforementioned musings on “the story,” she obviously is not going to throw away the life she has built with him in New York City to run away to Seoul with a man she never really knew, and certainly hasn’t spoken to in the last 12 years. That’s not how life works. Plus, she has rehearsals coming up!
Yet as a storyteller himself, Arthur sees the appeal of why it should work that way, and why he should suddenly feel like the odd man out in his own marriage. As played by Magaro, Arthur is a sweet, deeply empathetic man who knows the practicalities of life. But unlike his wife, who insists throughout the movie that she never cried after moving to Canada, Arthur is in touch with the impracticalities of our very natures too. Which puts him on the same wavelength of the film these people find themselves trapped in.
The first love who got away has come to New York City; and while Hae Sung has no illusions about reconnecting romantically with Nora, he still is drawn enough to the idea of her to fly halfway around the world. He seeks the closure he never had when they failed to say goodbye the last time they met face-to-face, absent any screens or laptop cameras. If Arthur is any kind of success as an author, he must recognize the human need of such a journey.
So he stands by as Nora and Hae Sung search for whatever answers they can find. As a husband, he trusts his wife, and as a character he reveals a screenplay that trusts the audience to understand this is a more intimate exploration of the happenstances, surprises, and quirks that eventually amount to a life.
Arthur can empathize out a sense of decency and humanity with both Nora and Hae Sung’s unresolved feelings, but he still has to sit there at a bar until 4 a.m. listening to his wife speak a language he doesn’t understand with a man he doesn’t know, and be mistaken as a couple’s put-upon tour guide burning the midnight oil. It takes a miraculous level of patience, forbearance, and basic sympathy to endure sitting there and hearing jokes in a tongue his wife dreams in. As he confessed earlier, it is a part of her that he can never access.
Nora and her childhood beau might have In-Yun—layers of spiritual connection from past lives that brought them back together in the present—but it takes a special kind of magic to embrace Hae Sung’s kinship and drink with him as a friend. Or, as Hae Sung concedes, whatever In-Yun he and Nora might have had, it pales to the connection (reincarnated or otherwise) that brought Arthur and Nora together. It might even pale with the amount of In-Yun needed for Arthur to resist telling this dude tot take hike!
But then the purpose of our third wheel here is to accept this is not his story, and having the patience to step aside and let the minor tragedy of the roads not taken play out on a New York sidewalk. Intriguingly though, Nora refuses for almost her entire life to see the dramatic potential in hers and Hae Sung’s reunion—just as she chooses not to engage with Arthur about the random luck, serendipity, or magic which led them to live in the same shoebox flat. Whatever one might call it, including In-Yun, Nora finally allows herself to touch it at the movie’s end. She finally cries.
In her youth, it might have been Hae Sung who comforted her, but at the end of that story, a final closing of that ellipses in her life’s journey, it is Arthur who recognizes his cue to be her shoulder. Whatever you would call Nora and Hae Sung’s story, it has reached a final conclusion. After patiently standing off-stage, Arthur now hits his mark and is there to console Nora until the tears fade away. The poignancy of his role as husband, as fated soulmate, or simply a character in this film who happened to attend the same residency as Nora, stems from knowing when to wait and when to step in.
A24‘s Past Lives is streaming on Paramount+ in the U.S. now.