I’ve seen Celine Song’s Past Lives (2023) five times, and I can’t seem to stop thinking about how it gorgeously captures immigrant desire, how it renders our experience of looping time with such sensitivity. Perhaps this is because I’ve been looking back on my own life, writing a memoir that imagines the person I could have been had I grown up in the city of my birth; had I stayed in Vietnam instead of leaving for Canada; had my father not disappeared in the open waters while seeking refuge. In the midst of entertaining this other life, watching Song’s film struck a nerve that went straight to some deep recess of my diasporic existence. Past Lives spoke so resonantly to what I felt intuitively, but was only beginning to realize, about being an immigrant.
There’s a scene in which a Korean family arrives at Pearson International Airport in Toronto. In it, passports are exchanged for new lives, and an immigrant path is set into motion. Then later, one of the children, Nora, passes through the same airport, this time with her white American husband, returning from a visit with her parents. She has immigrated a second time, and is now a writer in New York City working on a play about migration. An actress she auditions reads out the lines: “If you bought a ticket to see this show, took the subway or a cab to be here, it cost you something … that makes you some kind of immigrant.” Through art, Nora is trying to make sense of the price she’s paid to be in the here and now.
While glowing reviews of the film have hailed it as a timeless love story, emphasizing the romance, Past Lives is more profoundly viewed as an immigrant narrative. Song’s feature debut most brilliantly depicts what it means to leave a life behind and relocate elsewhere. It does this by avoiding the common traps of immigrant narratives: assimilation, belonging, trauma, alienation, nostalgia, and the American Dream. Instead, it quietly but powerfully explores the immigrant’s relationship to various what ifs—to past lives that might have been future ones, to present lives shaped by all that was not.
This unique focus distinguishes Song’s film from one like Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari (2020), which does exactly what it’s expected to do: dramatize the immigrant’s putting down of roots, his claiming of space in America. Or a film like the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), which, for all its radical play, flattens out into a mother-daughter conflict. Of course, both films are complex and nuanced works that have rightly garnered praise for their treatment of Asian American life, but the arc of their narratives resolves into the achievement of settlement in one instance, and intergenerational healing in the other. These issues have been central themes of immigrant stories for decades. And while Chung’s and the Daniels’ films are great singular tellings, they don’t actually say much that’s new.
Past Lives, in some senses, is not about anything new either—a missed romantic connection that persists through decades. Yet, the question it raises via this transnational love story illuminates a core but often unremarked dimension of immigrant experience: that we live in the subjunctive, shuttling between what is and what could have been.
To long for the path not taken, to ponder what our lives could have been if we’d taken that other job, married that other person, or made that other choice, might be universal, but this experience hits differently for immigrants because that other life is more tangible. It is currently being lived in the moment elsewhere by others, who may be family, friend, or co-ethnic. This other life is not a matter of abstract speculation. It is all too real.
And it can arrive as a Facebook message, a Skype call, a man getting on an airplane to fly across the Pacific Ocean and arrive at your doorstep, as it does for Nora.
When Hae Sung, Nora’s childhood crush, reappears in her life for the first time, it seems that her family’s emigration from Korea was just a detour from the life she was supposed to lead. The love affair that begins to blossom via grainy Skype calls promises to reignite this past life. But Nora ultimately knows that she can’t exist with one foot here and another foot there. She’s paid too much already—she must attempt to live the present as the present and nothing else. She cannot deny that migration has already changed her in ways irrevocable, which explains her difficult decision to hit pause on the past (to take a break from the romance) so she may resume life and see what kind of future is possible.
When Hae Sung reappears again, this time in the flesh, Nora has already made her decision, has already lived—is living—the life she wants. Yet, his physical presence is evidence of this other life that can pull at her. Hae Sung, of course, brings back lingering feelings, but he is also more than a romantic object from the past for Nora. He is, in some senses, her double, her stand in, her ghost. He is the one who lives the life she didn’t choose. If, as she tells Hae Sung later on, she left the little girl he loved behind twenty years ago, then she also knows that he has brought that little girl and all she represents with him to New York. Hae Sung is not the only one who longs for Na Young (and everything she might have been) before she became Nora.
When Nora’s husband, Arthur, asks if she’s attracted to Hae Sung, she tells him, “I just missed him a lot,” and then a beat before she realizes, “I think I miss Seoul.” Hae Sung is so “Korean-Korean.” He is entangled with the city she left years ago, with the idea of a place and a culture that’s no longer hers, but is still very much her. A language she only speaks in her dreams. An inexpressible Korean-ness that she can’t access but also won’t let go of. A life that unfolded while she was away.
This is beyond romantic love. The film’s refrain, the concept of in-yun—of a fate that we share with certain people across lifetimes—is actually not that interesting or insightful in describing what Nora experiences. What’s more groundbreaking in Past Lives is the immigrant’s real encounter with the life that could have been.
This encounter, while unsettling and heartbreaking, can allow us to be with the many losses that shape our presence. As I finish final edits on my memoir, I understand that our past lives can anchor us to the actual, present one.
It’s not that Nora, as with many immigrants, wants her life to be different, but she also knows that there are phantoms that haunt what is. That the life that’s lived is not the only one.
Knowing this is the immigrant’s enduring, poignant wisdom.
Vinh Nguyen is an educator and writer. His writing appears in Brick, The Malahat Review, PRISM international, Grain, and The New Quarterly, where he is a nonfiction editor. His memoir,The Migrant Rain Falls in Reverse, is forthcoming in 2025.