Movies about immigration typically focus on two of its causes: economic hardship or political instability. These are important stories to tell—they depict the often underappreciated accounts of people living through them—but their focus is frequently too narrow. Immigration isn’t just about motivations to move or struggles to stay, but about how the process affects someone’s personality and closest relationships. Films that center on the macro factors risk flattening the immigrant characters they seek to represent.
Celine Song’s debut film, Past Lives, shows a refreshing, alternative approach. The film (now in theaters nationwide) is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of long-lost love, a reflection on the parts of childhood we can neither fully shake off nor truly regain. But it also eschews the predictable politics of immigration and instead doubles down on the fascinating subjectivity of its protagonists.
Past Lives tells the story of childhood sweethearts Nora and Hae Sung, who grew up together in Seoul, South Korea. Their burgeoning tween romance is cut short when Nora’s parents decide to move their family to Canada. After 12 years without speaking, Nora and Hae Sung reconnect (thanks, Facebook) and start a long-distance, Skype-dependent bond that eventually withers away. But flash forward another 12 years, and the two finally meet in person. Hae Sung, still in Seoul, has just broken up with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Nora is … a professional writer, living in New York, and married to her American husband, Arthur, a fellow writer. Nevertheless, Hae Sung visits Nora for a brief week—more than 20 years after they last saw each other in person.
Part of why Past Lives works so well is that it’s aware of key complications of modern romance, and it understands how résumé virtues can interfere even with love. In a Skype call during the second stage of the movie, Nora and Hae Sung (played as adults by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo) float the idea of visiting each other. But neither wants to cross the Pacific. He’s trying to study Mandarin in China and working on an engineering degree; she has just landed a writing residency in Montauk. Their professional plans come first, and rather than altering those plans, they decide to stop talking altogether.
Past Lives succeeds as a romance alone, and the onscreen chemistry between Lee and Yoo is palpable. The film’s effective portrayal of Nora and Hae Sung’s lingering affection enables it to explore one of its central concerns, namely the underappreciated tensions at the heart of the immigrant experience.
The movie does hit familiar themes. Economics push Nora’s family to immigrate—but not due to hardship. Quite the contrary. When a classmate asks why her family is leaving Seoul, the 12-year-old Nora replies, “Because Koreans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature.” They’re immigrating for a better life, yes. But they aren’t escaping hardship—they’re chasing ever-greater middle class ambitions.
But Song primarily seems to reckon with a different question: How do you convey, especially to a non-immigrant audience, how immigrating feels? For Past Lives, the answer is by drawing a parallel between immigration and childhood love.
Nora and Hae Sung face undeniable cultural differences when they reunite. They speak about money and career ambitions differently, and have different expectations about their relationships to their parents. “He’s really Korean,” Nora tells Arthur, “Not like Korean-American. Korean-Korean.” Despite those differences—not to mention the impediments that time, geography, and ambition anxiety send their way—they remain indubitably drawn to each other. For Nora, the immigrant, Hae Sung is both her long-lost childhood love and an emblem of a life she may have had in Seoul.
But she also realizes it’s not her current life. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” Nora confides to Arthur (warmly played by John Magaro) in anticipation of Hae Sung’s visit, and she seems quite glad about that. She loves her adopted country: It gave her a fulfilling career, the New York evening skyline, and most especially her husband. Arthur is kind and understanding throughout the film, and he earnestly tries to sympathize with his wife—even to the point of learning Korean to relate with his in-laws. He insists on having dinner with Nora and Hae Sung, resulting in a final act that is both at once understated and incredibly tense. It goes to show that Past Lives isn’t interested in downplaying the welcome most immigrants to America receive in their new home.
At the same time, Past Lives understands immigration as the commingling of both love and loss. Nora cares deeply for Arthur and her life in America. But she also pines for Hae Sung, and loves and misses her home country, most strongly through the memory of the first boy she loved. This blend of emotions—gratitude for the present mixed with longing for the past—shouldn’t be hard to understand, especially when considered in the context of childhood. But it’s rarely verbalized or depicted in film in the context of immigration. Especially when some of the loudest right-wing voices pathologize immigrants as instigators of cultural disunity, while much of the political left infantilizes them as de-facto oppressed, Past Lives offers welcome nuance.
Past Lives is one of this year’s cinematic success stories. Greta Lee in particular deserves praise for her portrayal of Nora—she carries the emotional weight of the movie with subtle gestures and glances. But the film’s original and constructive telling of an immigrant’s heartbreak makes it stand out beyond its artistic value. There is a need for immigration stories that aren’t about borders, or language barriers, or xenophobia even—not because those aren’t significant, but because despite their importance, focusing only on them misses more personal tensions within the immigrant experience. Past Lives embraces them.