MOSF 18.2: Celine Song’s Past Lives: Ambition and Emptiness (EAAPAAO Part 3)

Memoirs of a Superfan Vol 18.2: Celine Song’s Past Lives: Ambition and Emptiness (EAAPAAO Part 3)

(Everything Asian American Psychology All At Once, Part 3)

by Ravi Chandra. Posted on April 23, 2023.

Past Lives opens to wide release on June 2nd, 2023.

The disrupted heart beats in many places, irregularly, achingly, disconsolately, but never steadily in one singular body, separate, alone. The Asian American heart has suffered specific and multiple disruptions, and we need a specific and pervasive electricity to make ourselves whole. This defibrillating charge has been coming more and more steadily in the pulse of major films: Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Minari, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and now Past Lives, Celine Song’s assured and haunting debut narrative feature.

We live in impressive times, when the possibility of cultural cohesion and conversation after decades – or even a century or more – of political activism necessitated by exclusion, subordination, catastrophic and racist misperceptions and abuse, and a general lack of place and acceptance has allowed us the ability to tell our stories and be seen and mirrored where we had previously been limited, unseen, fragmented, and distorted. We are gathering to some critical mass of change that is altering not only real-world narrative, but also establishes presence. At the very least, seeing these films is a solace and comfort, meaningful and entertaining. There’s so much emotional labor to be done, and these films help us do the lifting.

As those who have followed my writing know, our creatives have been putting out significant work for quite a long time. Even before I’ve been writing about it, of course. It has been my regular complaint that our efforts have not been regularly or fully validated by either the Asian American or the dominant culture’s appreciation. As Asian Americans, we all too often are distracted by the gravitational pull of Marvel movies and other White-centered Hollywood blockbusters, and neglect our indie efforts and triumphs. And all too often, our creatives give in, too, and pull for the attention of the dominant culture, because that’s where the big bucks and big awards are. We “buy into the blockchain of subtle oppression,” as I wrote many years ago, on the topic of gender relations (see references). I wondered then if frequently inhibited and dysfunctional IRL romance required big-screen stimulation before emulation and embodiment become possible.

We need each other’s love, yet we don’t show each other enough love. We’ve had other things on our plate. Love seems secondary to survival and antagonizes an achievement-oriented fitting in, fitting into a dehumanizing, dystopic, utilitarian machine. Love, and lovers, get left behind in American, and Asian American, “advance.”

Past Lives embodies the right kind of advance. I saw it as the Centerpiece presentation of SFFILM, in a sold-out Castro Theater, which was on its way to possibly being sold out itself, in what seems the wrong kind of advance. The line to get in stretched down Castro onto 18th and then catty-cornered its way past Moby Dick down Hartford. I’ve never seen so many shocked faces go past me as they turned the corner and kept going, searching for the end of the line, searching for a way in to the temple of wonder and belonging.

My view of the line to get into “Past Lives” – on Hartford at 18th Street.

This movie is a hype-beast. My date ended up liking it more than I did, right off the bat. I instead wondered if the juice was worth the squeeze. Perhaps it too closely tickled a spot of absence without completely fulfilling it. Absence has injured us all in Asian America, an absence that drives us either to power or love in our powerless state.

The next morning, though, the film kept turning over in my mind. For this quality, of getting in my head (uh, like the disruptive code that brought down the Borg? OK, I get into the general pop culture too!), I finally landed on appreciating the film, and perhaps allowing that it could be considered great.

SPOILERS AHEAD! But if you’ve seen the trailer, you already know the fundamental arc of the story, though the journey and final sequence might hit you harder if you don’t see them coming. Read further at your own risk.

Importantly, the film centers the experience of children, and the experiences we carry from childhood, our inner children: specifically, a 12-year old Korean girl, Na Young (Seung Ah Moon), who is in the grip of a nascent puppy love with classmate Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) just before she immigrates with her artist parents to America. Flash-forward 12 years, and Na Young has become 1.5 generation Korean American immigrant Nora, played by Greta Lee. A still hung-up Hae Sung (played by Korean German Teo Yoo) finds her via her film-director father’s Facebook page, and the two rekindle their romance with deliciously palpable chemistry over the joyfully familiar-yet-dated tones of incoming Skype calls. Flash-forward another twelve years, and Nora has married Jewish American and fellow writer Arthur (who has penned the book Boner, for comic effect), and Hae Sung comes for a subtly upending visit. Long walks, a ferry ride past the Statue of Liberty, and three intimately-shot conversations, and past lives come rushing into view, a river of grief, loss and regret etching a gorge which the characters must ever travel towards an unknown sea. The “past lives” of the characters are their younger selves, but also the connected lives they may have shared before this life, through the Korean concept of in-yun. The overarching hope of future connection, an unspoken love, whispers to them both.

In-yun and the Vietnamese concept of duyên refer to intertwined lives. The red thread refers to the Chinese/Asian legend of a red thread that connects those fated to meet, or help each other. Jeong is a Korean term referring to interdependence and connection.

What I wanted more of might have been too on-the-nose: more hints at how migration have altered Nora’s world and identity; hints of her emotional arc in the new country; more “there” to Korean-ness in the film, vs. an othering in America. More “there” to the first two acts. There are hints of this: Na Young/Nora is seen backed against a wall as other children raucously play in her new country; she has to answer questions about where she’s from.

I found myself wishing for more cinematic chemistry. But would more cinematic chemistry have been too easy for consumption? Or was the dearth of chemistry part of the point, in illuminating a specific kind of isolation and suppressed, restrained, contained emotion that is familiar to many immigrants? Contrast Past Lives to the chatty, effusive Linklater Before movies for a comparison of agency, autonomy and surrender in Asian America and White romance and near-romance.

Why do we spend so much time saying “no” to each other?

Nora and Hae Sung share moments of chemistry

The characters, especially Nora, came off as statuesque to me as Lady Liberty, and perhaps just as hollow, outside of those few intimate conversations. Maybe this allows us to raise questions of solidity and certainty in identity vs. emotional fluidity and uncertainty. People become people through other people, and Nora is still on the way to becoming a person, I think. She must travel through uncertainty, which she seems to have avoided til now. Even Arthur, her husband, wonders whether she really loves him. She says the words, but it’s only when we’re affected by others that our soul shows. The Nora we’ve seen in the first two acts, and really up to the final scene, is not so much affected but affects. Something’s become cold and distant about her. Hae Sung and Arthur’s obsessions with her and insecurity are welcome examples of male vulnerability and an antidote to the trope of the longing, self-conscious woman – but the film centers her journey, not theirs.

Celine Song with Greta Lee, here adamantly denying she campaigned for a kiss with Teo Yoo.

Nora seems primarily driven by ambition, power, autonomy, and agency throughout most of the film. At 12, she cries when Hae Sung bests her for the first time on an exam. She tries to co-opt the English name her parents give to her younger sister, who conveniently disappears later on, demonstrating Nora’s triumph. She cuts off Hae Sung at 24, perhaps because emotions and distance have gotten unmanageable, but also because, I think, he doesn’t fit into her plans for winning Nobel, Pulitzer, and Tony. And she is about to go to a writers’ residency, where she seduces Arthur, by her own admission. Arthur does fit into her plans. (He later says they have read the same books and he gives her notes on her plays.) They marry more quickly than they had planned, because she “needs a Green Card.” She strives to complete her parents’ ambitions of artistic renown. And despite her being the artist, the most imaginative lines are given to Hae Sung.

What Nora wants, Nora goes after and gets. Until the final catharsis, with Nora recognizing her loss and longings, undone and unfulfilled, empty, but perhaps in the emptiness realizing more possibility for intimacy and relatedness.

Another moment of physical chemistry that hints at unspoken love.

What if she’d had psychoanalyst Jim Bae to speak with? Bae writes in his essay From 고향 (Go-Hyaang) to Home: An Intergenerational Voyage:

I know that I have long been conscious of a longing for a sense of home, community, and belonging, ever since I, as an Asian American high school sophomore in the early 1980s, had awakened to experiencing myself as lacking an authentic sense of a centering relationship to my physical location and the people there. I wonder to what degree I carry my parents’ and perhaps even my grandparents’ longings—that my yearning for home and community in a foreign land echoes their yearning for home and community in a foreign land as well as in their “homeland.”

Past Lives is a metaphorical cousin to EEAAO, and like it, asks us to consider our choices and direction well in the multiverse of our many personalities. As Asian Americans, will we choose each other, happenstance family who can make a home for and with each other?

As we emerge from the pandemic, aren’t we all feeling we need each other, just a little more? It hurts to have this need, this absent, empty space that demands connection, that beats a pulse to see.

Aren’t we all haunted?

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Photo by Bob Hsiang, 2022

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer, and compassion educator in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and is now at work broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts here. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure. His debut documentary was named Best Film (Festival Director’s Award) at the 2021 Cannes Independent Film Festival. The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice is available on-demand, and with the discount code “Awake” you can get a 20% discount. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. You can find him on Psychology Today, MediumTwitterFacebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.

2 Comments

  1. Frederick Huang on April 23, 2023 at 2:53 pm

    Thank you Ravi for a jaunt through this intriguing movie. It is a great time for Asian and Asian American story telling. I definitely resonate with your sentiment that the pandemic made it even more clear that we need to connect and be a source of human comfort for one another.



  2. Ravi Chandra on April 23, 2023 at 4:47 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Fred! Cinema is a nice reminder of these fundamental truths we try to bring to our therapy sessions as well.



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