Breaking Down How the K-Drama Reinvents the Rules of Romantic Movies
A24’s latest cinematic masterpiece, Past Lives, has captivated both critics and audiences alike, generating a significant buzz since its premiere at Sundance 2023. The film follows the journey of Nora (played by the talented Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (portrayed by the remarkable Teo Yoo), childhood friends who drift apart when Nora’s family immigrates to the United States. However, destiny brings them back together after two decades, providing them with a week to reflect upon their past, present, and future.
What unfolds onscreen is a poignant and realistic tale that defies the typical conventions of a “romantic” movie. While Past Lives may lack the explosive conflicts often seen in other films, it remains true to itself, offering an honest portrayal of human relationships. It challenges audience expectations, deviating from predictable story beats and clichéd patterns. Each character in the film is multi-dimensional, surpassing their mere existence on the page. Even those who could be considered “villains” in similar narratives become more complex and relatable.
A24 is renowned for its emotionally driven films, and Past Lives is no exception. Its emotional core lies in its sincerity and authenticity. Every character, whether they are perceived as good or bad, possesses shades of gray, making them truly human. Arthur (played by the talented John Magaro) could easily be seen as the antagonist, as he is Nora’s current love interest who may view Hae Sung as a threat. However, the film’s director and writer, Celine Song, ensures that every character is understood. Arthur himself acknowledges his role in the story, stating that he is meant to keep the true lovers apart. This moment of self-awareness challenges the audience’s expectations and adds depth to the narrative.
Interestingly, Arthur is the only obstacle that Nora and Hae Sung must overcome in their quest for reconnection. There is a sense of apprehension when they reunite, fearing that Arthur may disrupt their newfound happiness. However, a conversation between Arthur and Hae Sung reveals that Arthur recognizes his role is not that of a villain. He understands that fate cannot be altered, no matter how strong the love between Nora and Hae Sung.
In stark contrast to traditional romantic films, Past Lives does not provide a neatly packaged, happy ending. Instead, it delves into the complexities of life and the lessons learned through hardship. This film, disguised as a years-long romance, is, in essence, a coming-of-age story. It explores mature and relatable themes that go beyond the surface-level emotions typically associated with the genre. The characters in Past Lives have been pushed in opposite directions by fate, leading them to create separate lives for themselves. Nora, in particular, has built a fulfilling life in New York City, accompanied by Arthur. The film acknowledges that real life is far from the fairytale portrayed in American romance films. Nora and Hae Sung’s realization that they cannot be together adds a painful yet profound truth to their story.
Rather than seeking a conventional happy ending, Past Lives encourages its characters to live in the moment and appreciate every second they have together. This theme of “living in the moment” is a departure from the norm in romantic films, making the absence of a traditional happy ending more palatable. The film’s slow-burn nature, a trademark of A24 productions, demonstrates a newfound maturity for the studio. It treats its audience as mature individuals who understand the complexities of life, further solidifying Past Lives as a groundbreaking independent Korean drama that challenges the conventions of the romantic genre.
A24’s film Past Lives has attracted attention from both critics and audiences. After its premiere at Sundance 2023, anticipation for the film was at a major high. The drama follows two childhood friends, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who drift apart when Nora’s family immigrates to the United States. 20 years later, the pair reunites at an entirely different time in their lives. Being reunited for one faithful week allows them to reflect on their lives, past, and future. What follows is something much more poignant and realistic than a typical “romantic” movie.
Past Lives completely subverts audiences’ expectations for a romantic drama. While it is a rather quiet story without much conflict, it remains honest. That honesty goes against story beats that audiences may expect. Viewers are used to these movies following certain patterns that have similar resolutions.
This film does not follow those similarly, and sometimes more clichéd patterns. Every character in the movie is more than what is on the page. There are characters in these kinds of stories that could be considered “villains.” The success of Past Lives is the fact that there are no villains.
There Are No Clear Villains
A24 has some of the most emotional films for the modern day. Their emotional core comes from a place of honesty. No matter what, every character is complex, with well-drawn shades of grey. The good guys have flaws, and the “bad guys” are not as bad as they appear. In Past Livesthe character of Arthur (John Magaro) could be considered the villain. He is Nora’s current love interest in the film, who could view Hae Sung as a threat. That is not the case for Arthur’s role in the story.
Director and Writer Celine Song help make every character be understanding. Arthur, in particular, understands his role in the story. In the trailer for the filmArthur acknowledges that very fact. He explains to Nora that he is the character who is “meant to keep the true lovers apart.”
In an average Romantic film, no character would ever acknowledge their perceived role in the story. It is a brief moment of dialogue that goes against the audience’s expectations of the genre. That line of dialogue is not the sole reason for the film to have no villains in the story.
Arthur is the film’s only real “obstacle” that Nora and Hae Sung have to try and conquer. Once Hae Sung and Nora reunite, there is a palpable fear of Arthur entering the story. Song’s screenplay makes viewers wonder if he could disrupt their time together. It is not until Arthur and Hae Sung speak to one another that viewers realize it isn’t the case. Arthur realizes his role in the story is not that of villainy. He realizes that no matter the love Nora and Hae Sung have for one another, they cannot disrupt fate.
Romantic Films Do Not Always Have Happy Endings
Classic Romantic films give the characters a happy and emotionally satisfying ending. Those endings want to give the characters closure and a sense of happiness for the future. Real life does not always give people a happy ending. In a coming-of-age story, characters need to learn from hardships. Past Lives is a “coming-of-age” story disguised as a years-long romance. Its “coming-of-age” message teaches the characters about more mature and relatable themes.
The themes of Past Lives are more mature than your standard romantic film. Fate has pushed these characters in opposite directions. In the movie, they both have made impressive lives for themselves. There is no scenario in which Nora drops everything to run away with Hae Sung. She has built an honest and good life for herself in New York City that has Arthur by her side. Her life does not have room to be upended in the way American romance films have portrayed.
Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur are characters who live in a realistic world. Real life is much different than romantic fantasies. There’s a painful truth in knowing that both Nora and Hae Sung cannot be together. Both characters admit this, making their time together feel more impactful.
It is a subtle moment that does not just give the characters a typical, romantic “happy ending.” Instead, it allows them to live in the moment and enjoy every second of it. “Living in the moment” is a theme that does not normally appear in Romantic films. Exploring that theme in Past Lives makes the realization of “no happy ending” feel more palatable.
Past Lives will be considered by many to be a slow-burn film. Having stories that are slow burns is not uncommon for A24. This film being a slow burn, shows a new level of maturity for the studio. That maturity indicates just how special this independent Korean drama is for today’s audiences. Its story treats the audience as mature individuals who understand how life works. Those story and filmmaking sensibilities help explain why Past Lives reinvents the rules of Romantic movies.