Welcome to the Ending Explained for ‘Past Lives’, a drama film written and directed Celine Song. The film marks the debut of the director in the world of feature films, and she just crushes it. The film stars a very small cast of actors, but these are the only ones the story needs to function perfectly. Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, and John Magaro star in one of the year’s best films. When it comes to romantic films, it seems this is the one for this year, not only because it manages to tell two beautiful love stories in one but also because it manages to play with the conventions of the genre in meaningful ways.
‘Past Lives’ is beautifully directed and places Celine Song as one of the best new talents on the scene. The director has previous experience in other mediums, so it makes sense for her to jump seamlessly into features. The film showcases amazing cinematography by Shabier Kirchner, which shows both New York City and Seoul in magnificent ways as the story jumps in time and space.
The actors also do a fantastic job. As the script jumps between both languages, the feelings remain the same, and while the situation is a bit complex regarding feelings, the final resolution makes total sense.
The following paragraphs contain spoilers for ‘Past Lives.’ Read at your own risk.
Why Nora and Hae Sung didn’t see each other for so long?
‘Past Lives’ is all about the decisions we make along the way, both in circumstances that sometimes surpass us and when we have all the control over our lives. These are very different situations, but how we react in the face of each of them will change our lives forever.
‘Past Lives’ explores this theme by following a couple of characters throughout the year and letting us see how their choices shape their lives, even against their own desires. It makes for a much more realistic take on the Korean drama genre.
In this case, we are introduced to two major characters at the film’s start. We meet a young South Korean girl named Na Young.
She has a younger sister and lives with her parents, who are filmmakers. Na Young is always accompanied by a young boy named Hae Sung. Na Young confesses to her mother that she likes Nae Sung and will probably marry him. Hae Sung also likes Na Young; it is very clear. However, fate will break this future union, as Na Young’s parents have decided to move to Canada for a better life.
Na Young and Hae Sung have one last play date, as their parents want them to have a good memory before they get separated. On her last day in South Korea, Na Young and Hae Sung barely say goodbye, and their relationship is left in a sort of limbo with no closure.
Na Young moves to The United States of America and starts a new life there. We then jump twelve years into the future and see Na Young as a young adult, although by this time, she is mostly known by her American name, Nora. We see that she has become a successful young woman and has adapted very well to her new city, New York.
Meanwhile, back in South Korea, we meet an older Hae Sung as he finishes his military service and starts working at a company after he goes out. We see Hae Sung living mostly a normal South Korean life, seeing the same group of friends year after year.
He gets a girlfriend, but in the back of his mind, he seems to be unable to get Nora out of his head. In a conversation with her mother over the phone, Nora discovers that Hae Sung comments on her mother’s profile, looking for her. After so many years, it seems that these two lovers will have the chance to reconnect with each other.
Why is Hae Sung visiting New York?
Nora and Hae Sung reconnected on Facebook and started having Skype conversations. At first, it was a bit awkward. They haven’t seen each other in over a decade. However, the feeling is still there; soon enough, they talk daily. Soon, they become part of each other’s lives, even when physically far away.
The two share details on their days, their dreams, etc. It is clear that they want to be with each other, but the conversation never goes fully in that direction. When the subject finally comes up, Nora discovers it will be more than a year before Hae Sung can visit her in New York. She decides to end things.
Their conversations just stop, and after a final conversation, they say goodbye. Nora feels like she wants to do things but won’t be able to if she is always waiting in the back of her head for something more tangible to come from Hae Sung’s direction. She focused on her writing, aiming to become a professional playwright. Hae Sung also keeps his life going, and we don’t see much from him.
We see that Nora gets into a writer’s retreat, and there she meets another writer, a novelist named Arthur. There is instant chemistry between them, and when the movie jumps twelve more years into the future, and we see that Nora and Arthur have been married for years, it doesn’t come as a surprise.
Arthur is an author of moderate success, and Nora also does what she loves in theater. New York City has become her new home, and she seems very much in love with Arthur. However, things get complicated when Hae Sung finally decides to visit her in New York. Their encounter is tender and full of tension.
They have a magical day visiting the Statue of Liberty and many other tourist spots. Finally, before Hae Sung returns to South Korea, Nora introduces him to Arthur, and they have all of them one last night together. It is awkward at first, but they are all good people. At the bar, Hae Sung and Nora have their final climactic conversation.
Nora explains that their time has passed; the person he knew when they were kids and the person he knew twelve years ago on Skype, those Noras are dead. She is living her life and wouldn’t leave the things she built in New York. Hae Sung understands this, and even though they clearly love each other, destiny has other things in mind for them.
Hae Sung should return to her girlfriend in Korea, and Nora stays in New York with Arthur. As she says goodbye by accompanying him to his Taxi, she returns home to Arthur, who is waiting for her at the entrance, and she cries for the first time in the movie over his shoulder.
Why is Nora crying? Hae Sung’s visit was clearly intended to know if there was still a chance that he and Nora could be together again, even though she is now married. In a more conventional K-Drama, Nora would have left her boring husband and gone with the dashing and handsome Korean man, but this is not how things work in real life. She found Arthur, and she found everything she needed in him.
Nora cries for what could have been. She might be married and in love with her husband, but Hae Sung was her first love, and she still cared for him a lot. Sending him back to Korea in defeat feels bad, of course. But not everyone can have everything they want all the time.