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Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
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Chris Matthews poses for a photo at the Global Hub in Posvar Hall.
Chris Matthews: Inspiring language learners at home and abroad
By Anna Kuntz, Senior Staff Writer • April 22, 2024
The best cafés to caffeinate and cram for finals
By Irene Castillo, Senior Staff Writer • April 22, 2024

Meaning at the Movies | ‘Past Lives’ and Layered Connections

Meaning at the Movies is a biweekly blog that analyzes the depth and beauty behind different films.
Meaning+at+the+Movies+%7C+%E2%80%98Past+Lives%E2%80%99+and+Layered+Connections
Carrington Bryan | Staff Illustrator

To love a movie is to ache for it, to feel like the breath has been knocked out from your lungs, the ground beneath your feet shaken. To love a movie is to see a new way of speaking an innate truth that delves into your soul. To love a movie is to know you’re forever changed by it. 

I saw “Past Lives” for the first time in July and I knew I would never be the same. 

The film is so lush, so beautiful and so full of yearning that it almost defies description. The raw emotion of the movie is something that can’t fully be stated, only felt. To watch this film is to be taken over, to be completely pulled into the story and the connections and the characters that it is offering up. To watch this film is to feel your heart being tugged at, pulled apart as it begins to break and patched together just to be broken again. 

The film opens at the bar, as Nora (Greta Lee), Arthur (John Magaro) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) are shown sitting next to each other. Nora and Hae Sung are shown in close conversation with each other, as Arthur sits mutely beside them. A man and a woman’s voice are heard over the scene, as they try to guess what the trio is to each other, before finally ending with “I don’t know.”

The film then features three distinct parts. One is 24 years in the past when Nora and Hae Sung were children in Korea. One is 12 years in the past where Nora reconnects with Hae Sung, before eventually cutting off contact and meeting her husband Arthur. The last one, which makes up the bulk of the film, is the present where Hae Sung has come to visit Nora in America for the first time. 

The film beautifully illustrates both Nora’s connection to Hae Sung and Arthur. Her relationships with these men serve as avenues to explore her mixed identity of being a Korean immigrant to the United States. The ability to balance so many themes within the film is what makes it so potent — the layering of Nora’s identity allows for a deeper ache. 

There is so much longing within this film — longing for home, for a person, for the dream of what a different life could have been. Each character is longing on a different level, about a different thing. Hae Sung is longing for Nora, longing for the life they could have had together had she stayed in Korea, and visiting her is a way of getting his final answer. 

Towards the end of the film Hae Sung tells Nora, “For me you are someone who leaves, and for Arthur you are someone who stays.” Hae Sung is saying that this is the end of his wondering about her in this life — she has left. Maybe in another life things will be different, maybe even in a past life it was, but in this one, she has found herself in America and left a life in Korea, leaving what could have been with Hae Sung behind. There is no denial in their feelings, in the deep pulsating longing that courses between them, but there is also the agreement that this is all there can be for them in this life. 

The film’s final shot is not of Nora, but of Hae Sung as he drives away and looks out the window. He is going to his new life, one he knows with certainty that Nora has left. 

Nora’s final scene comes just before this, as she walks away from Hae Sung’s car and back towards her apartments, where she finds Arthur sitting on the stoop. Nora then runs into his arms sobbing. This moment isn’t Nora effectively choosing one man over another, but rather it’s her claiming her present. Nora is claiming her home, claiming that Korea and Hae Sung are very real and important parts of her, but that she has built her home here, with Arthur in New York. This is her present and her future, and she is choosing it. Her tears are the pain of letting go, grieving the little girl she was in Korea, grieving what her life could have been with Hae Sung had she stayed. 

The movie isn’t about Nora choosing a man — it’s about her choosing herself, accepting what is, choosing it even and grieving what she lost and what could have been. 

Arthur’s character then becomes a very interesting one in the midst of all of this. In a scene midway through the movie, Arthur tells Nora, “You dream in a language I can’t understand, it’s like you’ve got this whole world inside of you that I can’t understand.” Nora dreams in Korean and even as Arthur is trying to learn, it’s not something he can fully understand. There is a side of her, a part of her life that he can’t fully access. Hae Sung is filling a space Arthur can’t access. But Hae Sung knows Nora only in her past. Arthur knows her in the present. 

Arthur is so tender and kind throughout the entire film, even as it brings him pain. Even as he is left out of conversations because he knows Nora needs this, he trusts her completely. Arthur cannot fully understand Nora, but he understands enough to know that she needs to explore these ties to her past. Arthur offers space for Nora to work through the parts of her life that he cannot understand, and when she runs into his arms in tears at the end of the film, he offers only love and reassurance, knowing that Nora is mourning something greater than he can understand, but something that he can offer love in nonetheless. 

Ultimately, “Past Lives” leaves an aching feeling in your heart. It is one of the most deeply beautiful and gut wrenching experiences I’ve ever had watching a film. To watch it is to never be the same, and I sincerely hope you will.