New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Why Celine Song should win best screenplay at the Oscars

Though it’s worth recognizing the visual and technical merits behind the success of “Past Lives,” Celine Song’s genre-defying screenplay is the star of the film.
Daniel Yee
(Illustration by Daniel Yee)

Most romantic comedies with so-called happy endings are perfect guilty pleasures, but they set unrealistic expectations that leave viewers vulnerable to heartbreak. Korean Canadian filmmaker Celine Song subverts traditional romance narratives and leaves her audience choking back tears after her directorial debut, “Past Lives,” earning Oscar nominations for best picture and best original screenplay.

It’s undeniable that the acting, cinematography and musical score have worked in harmony for the film to garner such critical acclaim. With all the attention being on Greta Lee and Teo Yoo’s performances as Na Young and Hae Sung, Song’s unconventional screenplay has admittedly been overlooked. A lot of attention has gone to the film’s running mates “Maestro” and “The Holdovers.” However, Song’s ability to captivate a largely American audience with a movie that is almost entirely in Korean speaks volumes about the universal emotions and authenticity in her story.

The film introduces a young Na Young and Hae Sung who are engaged in a platonic rivalry of academics and athletics. Though the bond seems innocent, Na Young confidently tells her mother that she “will probably marry him.” Unfortunately for the pair, Na Young’s family moves to Toronto at the height of their friendship. Years later, she moves to study playwriting in New York City and changes her first name to Nora to further establish an identity in America.

Meanwhile, Hae Sung grapples with unemployment after serving in the Korean military. After 12 years of no contact, the two rekindle their friendship via Facebook and Skype, and spend every minute they can talking to each other. Inevitably, their long-distance relationship couldn’t be sustained, with another 12 years without any form of communication. Now in his 30s, needing closure in their relationship and still pining over their connection, Hae Sung makes the valiant trek to New York City, only to find Nora married to another man.

Hae Sung’s presence causes rifts in Nora’s marriage. Her husband, Arthur (John Magaro), feels his identity as a white man puts him at a disadvantage in their relationship. He begins to question if she only married him for a green card, and feels insecure about their ethnic identities potentially causing a divide in their relationship — one that Hae Sung can fulfill.

Part of what makes this movie so evocative yet devastating is the Korean concept of “in-yun,” which is the belief that there is a cosmic, karmic pull between two people based on who they were in a past life. The idea that Nora and Hae Young were destined to reconnect is inarguably romantic. Viewers have to grapple with the concept that if the universe can’t bring two people together, nothing can.

The ending of “Past Lives” left most hopeless romantics angry because Nora and Hae Sung don’t end up together. Though it is not a typical happy ending, a realist would argue it was the only way for the movie to end. Their personal and professional growth wouldn’t have existed if not for their separate lives. The story was truthful, raw and cathartic.

Contact Bella Simonte at [email protected].

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