Our Matrix of Desire

Celine Song’s "Past Lives" challenges the typical message of primal connection offered by most romance films, instead suggesting that they can never be separated from the real and material conditions of our existence.

Romance films—like Celine Song’s Past Lives (2023)—usually propose that our desires will either disrupt our fantasies of success or help us to realize them. The indie romance disrupts the fantasy that success and desire would align: its protagonist usually rejects the wealthy suitor for someone they really love. The Disney fairy tale aligns material and erotic dreams by uniting the heroine with a prince. Yet both propositions are refused by Song’s provocative film; likewise rejected is the underlying assumption that erotic desires exist apart from material ones.

The protagonist of Past Lives is Nora, a New York City–based playwright who left behind her childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung, when she immigrated to North America from South Korea as a 12-year-old. The film follows Nora as she reconnects with Hae Sung over the years: first in her 20s, and then again her 30s, at which point Nora is married, and Hae Sung is engaged. At each moment, we’re left wondering whether Nora will act on her desire for Hae Sung. In particular: Will Nora betray her white American husband, Arthur, to pursue a romance with Hae Sung?

Watching the film, I found myself drawn into the film’s allusions to romantic conventions: I wanted Hae Sung and Nora to get together, to have some release after all the build-up. But, given the world that Song’s film shares with us, I also struggled to imagine how such a “happy” ending might transpire.

That confusion is baked into the film. Following Nora and Hae Sung’s intense and erotically charged meeting as adults, Nora debriefs with Arthur and, in essence, offers an interpretation of the previous scenes. The tone shifts to the rational and cerebral; Nora is somewhat detached as she muses that Hae Sung is “so Korean.” When Arthur asks if she’s attracted to him, Nora replies that she doesn’t think so, stating that “I think I just missed him a lot. I think I miss Seoul,” rationalizing her longing for Hae Sung as a longing for the childhood she left behind in Seoul. Though it’s unsurprising that Nora might downplay her attraction here, the contrast in camerawork from the previous scenes to this one also hints at her ambivalence. Much of the conversation takes place as Nora gets ready for bed. A medium shot places Arthur in the foreground, facing the audience; Nora is in the background, at a distance from the audience. If she is concealing her true feelings from Arthur, they are also concealed from viewers, leaving us to question: which version of Nora is the most authentic one?

Our material circumstances don’t obstruct our desires, then. Instead, as Past Lives shows, such circumstances actually shape them.

The romance genre has particular conventions. One is that love is the union with another that is supposed to make us whole. Another is that desire is the erotic chaos that leaves us raw, vulnerable, and unhinged.1

The protagonist follows their desires in order to find “true” love. Frequently, true love is not just about communion, but about access to everything normative: marriage, biological reproduction, property ownership, and wealth. The Disney fairy-tale would be the classic example of such a normative fantasy, but so would more contemporary rom-coms like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Crazy Rich Asians. In these works, erotic intensity can seem childlike, often leading us astray: think the “bad boy,” the casual fling, or the marital affair. Yet in these same films, excavating one’s most true and authentic erotic desires is also what leads to a happy ending. The main character of Crazy Rich Asians, for instance, successfully convinces her prospective mother-in-law that she truly loves her boyfriend and is willing to sacrifice her own ambitions for family. That her boyfriend just happens to come from one of Singapore’s wealthiest families is presented as coincidental good luck. Yet in this film and many others, the links between desire and material success are not merely incidental, but integral to one another.

Past Lives flips the script on these conventions, inviting us to think differently about how love and desire relate. The love triangle at the center of the film is unevenly shaped. Song invests more screen time in building up the longing between Nora and Hae Sung than she does in warming us up to Arthur, making Nora’s desire for Hae Sung appear more primal and authentic than her love for Arthur.

Nora and Hae Sung first agree to a Skype meeting in 2012, a time when they are both single and in their 20s. We see their anticipation build: Nora walks through New York with a beaming smile on her face; Hae Sung joins his parents for breakfast after their meeting, and his mother asks him why he’s in such a good mood. Their continued Skype meetings are intimate and sweet, with close-up shots conveying their longing for each other. They primarily speak Korean to each other, drawing viewers into their private world. The challenges of long-distance communication eventually lead them to break off their meetings; shortly thereafter, Nora meets her future husband, Arthur, and Hae Sung begins a romance of his own.

In 2024, when Nora and Hae Sung connect in-person, the intensity builds. By this point, Nora is married to Arthur, and Hae Sung has a fiancée. As they ride the subway, holding the same pole, their fingers inch toward one another and they gaze deeply into each other’s eyes. In the city, Song’s wide shots visually frame Nora and Hae Sung in relation to other romantic couples. On a ferry ride, they gaze out at the water and Statue of Liberty; around them, couples do the same. Nora and Hae Sung resemble these couples, except that they stand at a slight distance from each other. When Nora, Arthur, and Hae Sung venture out to a local bar, the frame initially includes all three of them, but eventually narrows, zooming in on Nora and Hae Sung. The dialogue similarly shifts from a mix of Korean and English to just Korean.

Following Song’s visual and affective clues leads one to believe that Nora and Hae Sung are potential soul mates, who must grapple to overcome the obstacles separating them. To explain Nora and Hae Sung’s chemistry, the film offers the Korean concept of inyun, described as an enduring connection two people feel, one that is influenced by the intimate connections they shared in their past lives.

More than just a melancholic romance, “Past Lives” points out the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the genre, emphasizing how the conventions of romance are inextricably bound up with material circumstances.

By contrast, the depiction of Nora’s love for Arthur feels truncated. The repeated close-up shots that draw us into Nora and Hae Sung’s desire for each other contrast with an expository montage that speedily convey Nora and Arthur’s path to marriage and the relatively wide shots used when the film shows the spouses together. Though we do get some glimpses of more playful and loving moments between them, as when they spot each other across a busy city street, for the most part, there is little intensity between them. Nora and Arthur’s romance seems tied to their shared professional interests. They meet at a writer’s retreat and build their careers alongside each other. The film conveys the ease and comfort of their relationship through loving banter and looks, but we aren’t invited to invest the same kind of emotional energy in their coupling.

Casting and costuming reinforce this: Hae Sung is much handsomer than Arthur, who is sweet but disheveled and mousy-looking. Song clearly chose to contrast the two men in this way, playing against racist expectations that feminize Asian men and present them as less desirable than white men. Indeed, Hae Sung is the archetypical movie hero here, the one who graces most of the film’s promotional materials.

The film’s references to inyun, the sense of a primal connection in past lives, amplify its ambivalence about desire. In the early days of their meeting, Nora jokes with Arthur that they must have inyun … but also that this is just something that Koreans say to seduce somebody. In fact, despite taking inyun as a framing concept by titling the film Past Lives, the film offers no neat explanation for Nora and Hae Sung’s longing for each another. Instead, the raw feeling between them opens up questions that the film is unable to answer: Are such desires purely primal? To what extent are they shaped by race, class, and geopolitics? Can they be separated from the real and material conditions of our existence?

Our psyches, including our desires, are never independent from our social contexts. Why does Nora decide (spoiler alert) to stay with Arthur? The crucial factor is less Arthur’s desirability than Hae Sung’s unsuitability as someone rooted in South Korea. Even as we are introduced to Hae Sung as movie hero, the profoundly uneven power dynamics between his and Nora’s positions form an unspoken question that lingers throughout the film. Although Past Lives is a story told from Nora’s perspective, what shifts when we center Hae Sung’s point of view? Entertaining for a moment the possibility of a “true love” ending, for example, the stakes here are vastly divergent. More than just a passing fling, for Hae Sung, rekindling a romance with Nora and moving to the US leaves open the prospect of upward mobility (vis-à-vis the persistent fantasy of the American dream). He, in fact, is behind many of the efforts to reunite. He seeks out Nora on her father’s Facebook page; he reaches out when he visits New York; he explains to Nora that he and his fiancée have taken a hiatus. For Nora, by contrast, Hae Sung may represent her past life and self, a nostalgic connection to the country she has left behind. But the film never suggests that a union with him could offer reciprocal economic reward or career enhancement.

The specter of US cultural imperialism looms over the film, a fact that the characters are aware of even as children. When young Hae Sung asks Nora why she is moving away, she matter-of-factly tells him it’s because nobody in Korea wins a Nobel Prize in Literature. During a subsequent meeting, Hae Sung tells Nora that Korea isn’t big enough for her ambitions. At another point, Nora reassures Arthur at another point that she isn’t willing to give up her career ambitions to run off with Hae Sung.


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The circumstances Nora finds herself in are not incidental. The US achieved its global hegemonic standing through its imperialist ventures, including in Korea, where it remains embroiled in an ongoing war that began over seventy years ago.2 As Jodi Kim points out, “Although Seoul, like Los Angeles and London, is a global megacity, a crucial difference is that it is the capital city of what is effectively a militarized US neocolony.”3

The film thus implicitly meditates on the material circumscription of desire. As a result, the overall feeling of the film is melancholic, suggesting that we can’t have it both ways.

If we follow Nora’s assertion that her longing for Hae Sung is about a longing for her Korean childhood, then Nora is impossibly split. She is not quite Korean, not quite (North) American.4 She is not quite at home—her authentic self—with either Hae Sung or Arthur.

More than just a melancholic romance, Past Lives points out the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the genre, emphasizing how the conventions of romance are inextricably bound up with material circumstances. Nora’s dilemma is not just about choosing which individual completes her most authentic self, but about confronting her diasporic attachments to life in the US (as represented by Arthur), and her attachment to her South Korean childhood (as represented by Hae Sung), which stubbornly persists in the form of melancholic grief. Lingering beneath this impossible choice is Nora’s geopolitical privilege, which leaves by the wayside Hae Sung’s point of view: if the conventions of romance are inadequate vehicles for Nora’s story in Past Lives, they are simply unable to account for Hae Sung’s. icon

This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.

  1. On the concept of erotic chaos, see Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde (Crossing, 1984).
  2. See Christine Hong, “Guest Editor’s Introduction: The Unending Korean War,” positions, vol. 23, no. 4 (2015).
  3. Jodi Kim, Settler Garrison: Debt Imperialism, Militarism, and Transpacific Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2022), p. 2.
  4. On the split subjectivity of the colonized, see Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994).
Featured image: Still from Past Lives (2023) via IMDb