Welcome to our Colossus Movie Guide for Past Lives. This guide contains everything you need to understand the film. Dive into our detailed library of content, covering key aspects of the movie. We encourage your comments to help us create the best possible guide. Thank you!
What is Past Lives about?
Past Lives explores the very powerful experience of opportunity cost. If Nora’s family stayed in Korea, it’s a much different life than what they end up having in Canada. Likewise, if Nora stayed in Canada, then she wouldn’t be the person so shaped by a decade of living and writing in New York City. Nora’s love interests embody this idea of diverging paths. Hae Sung represents aspects of Korea and traditional masculinity that contrast heavily with Arthur, a Jewish New Yorker who is a bit more emotional and open. By choosing one over the other, Nora’s making a choice about her life and accepting its course and journey.
What Celine Song depicts in Past Lives is something all of us have experienced—the branching paths of life. The person who goes out of state for college must wonder what it would have been like if they had stayed closer to home. The person who lives in the town they grew up in dreaming about if they had accepted the job offer that would have taken them out of state. The person you went on a couple dates with but it didn’t work out because of timing. Our lives are full of these what ifs. And if we entertain every one of them, it can become a burden. A cherished burden. But a burden all the same. Past Lives gets at the idea of closure and letting go and being okay with living the life you have, and leaving the rest up to fate.
Movie Guide table of contents
- Nora – Greta Lee
- young Nora – Seung Ah Moon
- Hae Sung – Teo Yoo
- young Hae Sung – Seung Min Yim
- Arthur – John Magaro
- Nora’s mom – Ji Hye Yoon
- Written by – Celine Song
- Directed by – Celine Song
The ending of Past Lives explained
Past Lives ends with Nora walking Hae Sung down the block to wait for his ride to the airport. They have a final conversation that brings closure to the potential of them ending up together. Both accept that even if they had been together in past lives, this life isn’t their time. It’s for her and Arthur. Hae Sung offers up the hope that maybe they’ll find each other again in the next life.
With that, the two part. Hae Sung heads back to Korea while Nora cries her way home, arriving at the stoop and a waiting Arthur. Arthur holds Nora.
The main thing to keep in mind with Past Lives is that the love triangle between Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur is a means to an end. Celine Song wanted to capture the idea of having only one life to live and the opportunity cost that comes with such limitation. You can’t be everything to everyone. You can’t be everything. Part of getting older is coming to terms with who we are rather than who we could have been.
That’s what Hae Sung and Arthur represent. Nora’s past and present. Her choice isn’t between them as romantic partners so much as it is her finding closure and acceptance with who she is. We saw this earlier in Past Lives, during the college portion, when Nora tells Hae Sung she can’t talk to him anymore because she’s in New York City and has to focus on that life and not be thinking about him and going to Korea. By trying to split her time, she wasn’t able to invest meaningfully in her college experience. Something had to give.
That choice in college is the same choice Nora makes 12 years later. The only difference is the existential weight behind it. In college, you’re still in your early twenties and nothing feels so set in stone. Even if Nora concentrates on NYC for a few years, there’s plenty of time to see what happens next. But 12 years later? She’s deep into her life with her American husband, Arthur. And happy with it. It’s not some placeholder relationship. Or toxic. Or anything negative. Sure, it’s not perfect, but, overall, they’re in love and happy.
You could replace Hae Sung with any other aspect of a past life or “other” life. For instance, if Nora had initially studied physics and wrote some impressive paper in college but decided to switch to creative writing. 12 years later, a prominent researcher in Korea reaches out to her and offers her a position in his lab to work on the very thing that was the focus of her paper. She has to decide if she wants to live that other life as a physicist and be back in the country where she was born or continue as a writer in New York. Different stories but similar in that in both Nora can only walk one path in a way that’s fair to others and herself.
Speaking of walking. There’s this nice detail at the end that Celine Song called out in the press notes for Past Lives. She purposefully had Nora and Hae Sung walk right to left across the screen. Song: “When you draw a timeline, it always works left to right. By walking from right to left, you are walking quite literally into the past. You walk them there, the wind sort of blows her to- wards the past, and then he gets in the car, and then the Uber of course has to drive into the past. She will stand there for a moment, and then she’s gonna go back home, and every step is going to be a walk towards the future from the past.”
So Past Lives is less about Nora’s love story with Hae Sung and Arthur than her relationship with time and mortality. And it leaves us with that rueful hope that, maybe, reincarnation is real, and we’ll have a next life, where, once again, anything is possible.
The themes and meaning of Past Lives
Acceptance and closure
Past Lives isn’t a romance about Nora trying to decide between Hae Sung and Arthur. It’s not a melodramatic love triangle story. Rather, Past Lives is about Nora coming to terms with the life she has rather than continuously entertaining notions about what might have been.
We grow up full of potential. About who we’ll be, what we’ll be, the things we’ll see and do. Everything ahead of us is a question mark looking for an answer. By the time we’re in our thirties, much of that potential has been formed by twenties into a specific, discernable thing. This is who we are. This is what we are. And that can be, at minimum, overwhelming. It can often bring up feelings of grief, frustration, anger, desperation, yearning, and depressive nostalgia. It’s a process to reach the point where we can let go of what was and what could have been.
Past Lives boils this huge existential concept down to Nora’s relationships with Arthur and Hae Sung. Hae Sung embodies so much from her past. Not only her childhood but those early days in New York City when she was still a bit split between feeling like a girl from Korea and someone who lives and works in the Big Apple. She tells Hae Sung exactly this when she explains why she wants them to stop talking. It’s because she can’t fully invest in her life there while thinking about Hae Sung and what a future with him would entail.
Nora’s relationship with Arthur is, then, an extension of that concept. Arthur represents New York and writing and all these other parts of Nora that she has decided to make primary. When Hae Sung comes to visit, what’s really being asked isn’t who Nora will be with but who Nora will be. Even though her life with Arthur isn’t everything she might want, it’s who she is. It’s what she’s chosen. And she is okay with that. It’s still sad to let the past lives and other lives go. To know you’ll never be any of those other versions of you. But you get to be this one. And that’s pretty amazing. All you can do is make the most of it.
Being on the outside vs being on the inside
When Past Lives starts, the camera is from the perspective of people observing Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur. We hear these people wonder and observe. They point out how happy Nora and Hae Sung seem and how sad Arthur is. The viewer is like the observers. We know nothing about the three characters across the bar. They’re a complete mystery.
After that, we jump back in time, 24 years earlier, and the story begins. We meet Nora and Hae Sung. See their connection. The disappointment when Nora moves. Then the reconnection 12 years later. The opening dynamic makes far more sense—these are two people who genuinely love each other. Except it never works out and Arthur comes along. Uh oh. Knowing what we know, we wonder how Arthur could even hope to compete with Hae Sung. Except it turns out that he and Nora also have a wonderful connection and genuinely love one another.
Over the course of Past Lives, we gain a tremendous amount of context about those three people across the bar. We go from being on the outside of the situation to being part of the group. Literally, we can’t hear anything they’re saying, then, by the end, hear everything they’re saying. Distance becomes intimacy. Strangeness becomes familiarity.
Past Lives puts into perspective what it means to understand what seems like a casual, innocuous conversation. Anytime you’re out in public, look around you, and every single person is in the middle of some epic journey that’s the culmination of their life to that point. The simple fact that they’re where they are and not somewhere else represents a choice to live one life and not another. An awareness of this would hopefully be eye-opening in the sense that it allows us to feel a deeper appreciation for the random people who surround us every day. The person who doesn’t immediately cross the street when the light changes because they’re staring at the sky. What caused that momentary distraction is the consequence of their entire life. And if you knew the context, it might change how you’d think of that whole situation.
In some ways, this encapsulates Nora’s own journey. With the arrival of Hae Sung in New York City, it causes her to reflect on what was and what could have been. And even what could be. There’s still the potential she decides to run off with him and live a completely different life. These are feelings she hadn’t really thought about for over a decade. But with Hae Sung right there, Nora has to confront these feelings that she had merely been observing from a distance. Feelings that get at the very core of her being and her life in New York.
Past Lives can stir up a similar self-reflection in those who watch it. You might not be in Nora’s exact situation. But maybe it’s when you fly from wherever you live back to your hometown to visit family and you see old friends and you really think about what would have been and could have been if you had stayed rather than gone. Or vice versa, if you had gone rather than stayed. In having that conversation with yourself, in having that confrontation, you too can move from the outside of what’s going on to being part of it.
The duality of the immigrant experience
While it’s universal to reflect on the different lives we could have had, Past Lives is specifically about an immigrant experience. An autobiographical one. Celine Song, at age 12, moved from Korea to Canada. In her early 20s, she attended college in New York City to be a playwright. And in her early 30s, her childhood sweetheart came to visit her and her husband. With Song exploring the heart and truth of her own relationship with Korea, Canada, and America, her story resonates with the countless multitudes who have experienced something similar. And can even help first and second generation children of immigrants have a better appreciation/understanding of what their parents and grandparents experienced.
Why is the movie called Past Lives?
The title Past Lives has multiple meanings.
There’s the broader poetic conceit of referring to the “what ifs” that we accumulate over the course of a lifetime. It becomes another way of saying “In another life, I may have married my high school sweetheart and become a pilot. Instead, I’m a professor and married to someone else in the department. One isn’t better than the other. They’re just…very different.” We see how this plays out with the tension between Nora and Hae Sung, especially in the present day. We know there’s a version of their lives where Nora stays in Korea and the two grow up together, date, get married, then build a life together. There’s another version where they reconnect after college, date, get married, then build a life together. But we’re at the point where those are merely past lives that are impossible now.
Beyond that, the idea of past lives is something the film makes quite explicit through the stories relating to In-Yun. In-Yun is a concept about fate and the connection two people must have developed across past lives. So if you bump into a stranger on the street, you know In-Yun exists between you. Nora and Hae Sung laugh about the potential ways they may have developed their strong connection. He may have been a king and she the consort. She may have been a bird, he a branch. Chungking Express explores a related idea about fleeting contact between strangers.
Ultimately, Past Lives is a misnomer because, as far as anyone can prove, we only get to live one life. And it’s devastating because we’re full of potential. There are so many people we could have been. But we only end up as who we are. At a certain point, we have to come to terms with letting go of what could have been and embracing totally what is.
Important motifs in Past Lives
Light on the curtain
Near the end of the college chapter of Past Lives, Nora tells Hae Sung, via Skype, they need to stop talking for a time. She finds herself torn between what she’s doing in NYC and her thoughts of Hae Sung and getting to him in Korea. The decision she makes is to pursue where she is—New York. After this call and the painful sense of breaking up that permeates the air around Nora, there’s a shot of her room’s window and curtain. Just outside the window, it’s dusk. Oncoming darkness that marks the end of the day. This waning light embodies the shadow that’s suddenly fallen on Nora and Hae Sung. The end of whatever this period was for them.
Then the very next shot is of the window and curtain, but hours later, at dawn. The blossoming light of a new day. This begins the scenes that lead to Nora meeting Arthur and the start of this next part of her life.
Visual choices like this aren’t necessary to the story but are a means of capturing tone and emotion through the mise-en-scene.
Walking right to left then left to right
When Nora walks Hae Sung to his Uber, they walk from the right side of the screen to the left. This wasn’t an accident. Celine Song explained: “When you draw a timeline, it always works left to right. By walking from right to left, you are walking quite literally into the past. You walk them there, the wind sort of blows her to- wards the past, and then he gets in the car, and then the Uber of course has to drive into the past. She will stand there for a moment, and then she’s gonna go back home, and every step is going to be a walk towards the future from the past.”
Questions & answers about Past Lives
Why didn’t Hae Sung or Nora visit each other in college?
First, it’s expensive. They were both in their early twenties and a flight from New York to South Korea was not cheap. Second, they’re both incredibly ambitious and hard working. So in this sense, one would have had to compromise for the other. And neither was willing to do that. Talk all the time? Yes. But actually sacrifice an opportunity? The heart of it is that Nora would rather do her retreat and Hae Sung would rather do his language immersion program in China.
Would one grand gesture have made the difference? Possibly. Probably. But they just weren’t ready to take that step.
Is Past Lives based on a true story?
Yeah! Celine Song grew up in South Korea, moved to Canada, went to college in New York City, is a writer, and had a childhood sweetheart come visit her and her American, Jewish, writer husband. Obviously, it’s not verbatim what happened and changes were made to bring out the themes and drama and make it entertaining. But the core of the story is there.
Song: I was sitting there between these two men who I know love me in different ways, in two different languages and two different cultures. And I’m the only reason why these two men are even talking to each other. There’s some- thing almost sci-fi about it. You feel like somebody who can transcend culture and time and space and language.
Now it’s your turn
Have more unanswered questions about Past Lives? Are there themes or motifs we missed? Is there more to explain about the ending? Please post your questions and thoughts in the comments section! We’ll do our best to address every one of them. If we like what you have to say, you could become part of our movie guide!