A letter of gratitude to Nora, the woman at the heart of Past Lives

By Divya Venkattu

Celine Song’s gut wrenching debut details first loves, longing and the fondness that distance cultivates.

Dear Nora,

From the first frame that you appeared in, Past Lives became much more beautiful to watch. To some people watching, you might have been a Korean woman who betrayed her roots, who chose to migrate to the West, leaving behind her Korean name and along with it, an integral part of her identity. To some, you might be a case for ‘brain drain’ and it may have been considered a shame that you became a writer/playwright in New York, instead of contributing to the creative industries in Korea. To some, you might be a cold, heartless lover, not entirely submitting herself entirely to her Jewish, American husband and not belonging either to her Korean childhood sweetheart. Each person in the audience would have observed you through a different lens, and everyone’s opinions are valid.

But to me, your decisions have made more sense than anything else. Your decision to leave and your decision to stay. Leaving Korea was not entirely your decision, it was your parents’, but you accepted it. You were excited about what the future holds for you, and even if your loneliness in your new school in Canada was palpable-you had nobody to play with anymore, you learnt how to cope. When you reconnected in your 20’s with your childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung, you realised that you both shared the same effortless chemistry that you did as kids. But life had placed you two continents apart, and with no immediate ways of making things real, of actually meeting and being in a relationship, you were scared. You were heartbroken because you really did love each other. And you took a brave decision at that time-to let him go. 

A lot of times, as women, we are told to prioritise personal relationships above all else, we are told to hold tight to love because we may never find it again. We are told to settle down quickly, because older women are allegedly not as ‘in demand’ as younger women in the marriage market. But you chose to let go of a soulmate, because it was more important for you to focus on making something of yourself, of becoming someone, of achieving your dreams. You chose to trust the universe, to have complete faith that it will bring you everything you need in the right time. And because of your leap of faith, it did. It brought you Arthur, an American man who is sweetness personified, who understands and loves you with all his heart. 

When Hae Sung flew a few thousand miles just to see you one more time, you valued that. Even though you were married to someone else now, you were never dismissive of feelings, neither his nor your own. You were a good host, a kind one, and your compassion shone through. You showed him around the city that has now become your home, and you listened patiently to everything he had to say. And you did not expect this strange situation that you found yourself in to stir up feelings of jealousy and inadequacy in your near-perfect husband. But it did, and you handled that deftly. You infused humour into heavy conversations that he started, but you did not hide behind your jokes. You reassured him that the life you two have built together in the States is one that you actively choose each day, one that you wouldn’t trade anything else for-not even an out-of-the-world romantic story of love lost and found again. You were strong and brave every moment, and you faced unpleasant, heartbreaking situations head-on instead of running away from them. 

Your emotional resilience and maturity are never more apparent than when you’re seated in a bar in New York City, between Arthur and Hae Sung- two men who love, understand and respect you. When Hae Sung tells you he wonders what could have been, if your family hadn’t migrated to Canada, you tell him that you are not the girl he once loved. You are a grown woman with a whole new set of experiences, but the girl he loved did exist, and she was very real. 

Even with this level of maturity, when you see Hae Sung off, it still breaks your heart. Because he was a good man, and it was never your intention to hurt him. But that’s life, sometimes. And it’s inevitable in love. Love is just an endless cycle of hurting and getting hurt, over and over again, sometimes by the same person, sometimes by different people. 

When you go back to your New York apartment, one filled with familiarity, love and comfort, one that you built with Arthur, you see him waiting on the stairs and you fall apart in his arms. And that’s when you know you made the right choice in marriage. He is literally your home, and he will follow you into the dark. 

Past Lives felt more like different moments of your life thrown together in a visually stunning movie, than a movie about your entire life itself. We, as audience, are allowed into your world for a moment in time, just briefly, and I’m grateful we briefly got to watch the beautiful, poignant drama that is your life. Beyond beauty, your life contains remarkable depth, and the decisions you made in the circumstances you were presented with, are admirable. And just like I would observe, reflect on, and internalise the goodness and warmth when I hear snippets from a dear friend’s life, I would absorb everything I have learnt through your story.

Thank you, Nora.


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