There’s nothing special or particularly inventive about starting with the ending when telling a story. We do it ourselves in the real world all the time. Who among us hasn’t started a story: “Mom, Dad, I’m calling from the police station.” “Okay, son, you better tell us what happened.” And the details leading up to that moment unfold.
In the storytelling arts, beginning with the end is an interesting and risky framing device. Debut writer-director Celine Song uses the “begin with the ending” in her debut film, Past Lives. It also happens to be a device I’m using in my next novel, The Suitor (First chapter), so it must be a good narrative choice.
Pulp Fiction, Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Saving Private Ryan—all great movies, all made use of this technique. Novels: Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); Time’s Arrow (Martin Amis), Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk).
If “begin with the end” is done right, the audience or reader will immediately be intrigued and wonder throughout the movie—consciously or not—about this scene’s meaning to the overall narrative. But done wrong, and the writer has given too much of the story away, or the scene is too fragmented or confusing.
In the opening scene of Past Lives, we see three people at the bar: An Asian man, an Asian woman, and a white man, all in their mid-thirties. Another couple, off-screen and narrating by voice-over, are talking about them, playing that game where you try to guess the story of other people or just make up an entertaining one about them.
The two Asians are a couple and they’re married. No, they’re brother and sister and the white guy is their friend. No, they’re not even talking to the white guy; he doesn’t seem like he’s their friend. Maybe they’re all colleagues.
It’s kind of a fun game, we’ve all played it. But then the Asian woman turns and looks directly across the bar, at the camera, seemingly at the couple that has been talking about them, and her expression—I swear it’s recognition, and also maybe a touch of anger. Then the scene cuts to 24 years earlier. As the film unfolds, I keep that opening scene in mind and it becomes apparent who those three people are, but who was this voice-over couple that the Asian woman looked at across the bar? I guess we’ll find out.
Na Young and Hae Sung grew up together in Seoul. The two classmates shared a brief and bittersweet love affair, as only twelve-year-olds can. Na Young became Nora and her family immigrated to Canada, and as an adult, Nora moved to New York City and became a playwright. Hae Sung stayed in Seoul and became an engineer.
Twelve years later they reconnect on social media and carry on a virtual relationship for several months until Nora breaks it off believing it was interfering with her work as a playwright. Twelve years after that, Hae Sung visits New York, but by then Nora is married (to a fiction writer). Nora and Hae Sung get together and ponder the what ifs of their lives.
The movie’s title references the Korean concept of “inyeon” between two people. It has to do with providence or fate, and that two people getting together in this life is the result of many connections forged over many past lives. Inyeon is an everyday concept in Korea, although it’s a little hard to grasp for Westerners.
Maybe in another life Nora and Hae Sung would have ended up together, or even did, but Nora’s path in this life led her to her husband Arthur and there she’s staying. What’s the point in her dwelling on what might have been? Hae Sung, a bit more lost in the bittersweet past, does enough dwelling for both of them.
True to romantic drama genre conventions, the film is packed with strong emotions about the seriousness of love and the vagaries of fate, and a light humorous touch keeps it from veering into the maudlin.
Pretty much everybody who sees the film (and that’s almost nobody) likes it. It feels authentic, with the freshness and the pitfalls that accompany a young director’s debut. New York comes off as beautiful; Seoul not as much—certainly a directorial choice. The inyeon motif provides a framework, but neither Nora nor Hae Sung is sure how the concept relates to them.
As the movie nears its end, we return to the scene of Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur sitting in the bar. And who, finally, is this voice-over couple that had been conjecturing about them, the one that Nora seemed to recognize across the bar? Sorry, we never find out. I don’t quite understand the importance of that voice-over. Might have something to do with inyeon. You tell me: when Past Lives comes to streaming, I recommend checking it out.