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What We Can Learn About Love from Past Lives

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What It Means to Truly Love Another Person

Love seems to be such an easily definable thing, doesn’t it? Love is just love—it’s what one feels for their mother, their family members, their lovers; anyone they feel close to and that they’ve developed some sort of close bond with. It’s the emotion that defines those relationships, so, if it really can be that easily defined, what else could you possibly say about love?

Well, as a movie, Past Lives teaches us that there’s a lot more that can be said about love in what you don’t say about it.

Once Upon a Time in Korea

In Past Lives, Hae Sung and Nora are two childhood sweethearts who grew up in South Korea. The two get separated once Nora’s family immigrates across the Pacific to Canada and then–over time–to the United States. Several years pass, and the two end up reconnecting after a conversation that Nora has with her mother regarding the childhood friends she grew up with. Nora finds Hae Sung looking for her on an online message board for one of her father’s movies, and she soon begins video chatting with him over the course of several weeks. By the end of those weeks, Nora suggests that they stop speaking to each other as she starts to realize the futility of their attempts to see each other, and they amicably agree to stop talking to each other. Several more years pass by, and Hae Sung ends up visiting New York City—the city that Nora has established her life in.

Now, to begin with, the question of why these two reached out to each other has to first be asked. Why did they do it? Plenty of people grow up with childhood friends that they have the ability to reach out to, but that they choose not to. So why did they do so? Well, when the movie’s being watched, the one thing that director Celine Song chooses to focus on more than anything else is the connection these two have. Even as children, they were inextricably linked to each other; through their academics, their need to feel seen, and their inability to communicate how they felt about each other. But there was a connection there nonetheless, and that connection followed them all the way into adulthood, where something as simple as a message on Facebook compelled them to get back in touch with each other after 12 years of not seeing one another.

12 Years Later

So, fast forward to the present day, and Nora is now happily married to a man named Arthur, a writer who she met at a writer’s retreat several years earlier. She’s established her life in New York City, and she’s happy with someone she’s genuinely found love with. Now, enter Hae Sung, in his first visit to the city where his childhood sweetheart resides, and where he and the audience will soon discover what it means to actually love someone.

What It All Means

The thing Past Lives teaches us about love is that, sometimes, it’s what you realize about love that matters more than love itself. When Hae Sung came to New York, he did so in the hopes that he would receive closure, and that’s what this movie emphasized more than anything—the need for closure. With any relationship, be it romantic or not, you need a sense of fulfillment, a sense of resolution when it ends. Without a sense of closure, you’ll never feel a sense of contentment or acknowledgment that what you and the other person had was never meant to be. Fortunately, however, with his visit to New York, Hae Sung had an experience that finally allowed him to see that, and, by extension, so did Nora.

Throughout their time together, Hae Sung and Nora walk about the city, exploring its many nooks and crannies, and spend time together in a way that they hadn’t since they were kids. They catch up, fill each other in on things they didn’t know about, and just generally enjoy each other’s company while sinking into the sense of longing they mutually share for each other. They eventually return to Nora and Arthur’s apartment, where Arthur had been nervously awaiting them. They go out to a restaurant together and create a bit of small talk between themselves using Hae Sung’s limited English-speaking abilities and Arthur’s limited Korean-speaking abilities. 

Eventually, though, the conversation devolves into Nora and Hae Sung speaking amongst themselves in their native tongues, and confessing the things that they’ve always kept to themselves. They hear each other out, and leave themselves emotionally bare for each other to see. The three collect their check and head back to the apartment to gather Hae Sung’s belongings and prepare for his flight back home to Korea. Hae Sung packs his things, calls his Uber, and waits downstairs for it while Nora accompanies him. It’s here that Hae Sung tells Nora what he’s always known to be true of her: to him, she’s someone who leaves, and that, in this life, that’s who she will always be to him. His trip to New York finally allowed him to accept that, and he tells her that before getting in his Uber and returning to the airport. Nora hugs him goodbye, walks back to the steps of her apartment, and falls into the arms of her husband, dutifully waiting for his wife to return from something he knew she had to do.

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In Conclusion

Now, love isn’t such an easily definable thing now, is it? What is it, really? Well, what Hae Sung realized, and what most people end up learning at some point in their lives, is that love is accepting the other person for who they are. Love is being able to look at someone, and know that the person standing in front of you is the only person you’re ever going to get from them, and that to truly love them is to be okay with that. To Hae Sung, Nora was an unattainable, unachievable love that he had longed for for most of his life, but that he knew couldn’t long for anymore. The moment that he left for the airport, he realized that, to him, she would always be here, and that he would always be there. Figuratively, physically, spiritually—in every way possible—and he was finally okay with that being the case. And as tragic as it was for him to realize that, it was comforting for him to accept it, and to finally move on from someone that had plagued his mind since he was a child. In much the same way, Nora realized all the same things he did, and that’s the reason why she collapsed into her husband’s arms at the end of the movie—because she knew she could never be the person he wanted her to be.

So, all in all, that’s what love is. It’s depressing, it’s heartbreaking, but by God, is it absolutely beautiful. The inherent beauty in every moment of love is what binds everyone’s experience with it, and no matter how devastating the conclusion of that love may be, what cannot be denied is that it was all worth experiencing in the first place. Hae Sung and Nora’s love was never meant to be, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth experiencing. Their acceptance of that was the closure they needed from each other, and that’s the lesson that the movie ultimately teaches us: love is acceptance for who the person you love is.

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Past Lives (2023) A24 Official Trailer

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CUNY-graduate with a BA in Journalism. Dedicated to taking complex ideas and turning them into engaging and easy-to-understand stories.