How ‘Past Lives’ resonates with my Mexican bicultural experience

Teo Yoo, Greta Lee in "Past Lives"
(Photo illustration by De Los; photographs by Jon Pack / A24 Films)
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In “Past Lives,” playwright turned filmmaker Celine Song’s tenderhearted debut feature, cosmic forces align to bring together two former childhood sweethearts as adults.

Nora (played by Greta Lee) left South Korea for Canada with her family as a 12-year-old, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) stayed behind wondering if they would ever see each other again. Two decades later, they are finally in the same physical location again. Now a successful writer, Nora is married to a white American man. Hae Sung, in a serious relationship with a Korean woman, leads a self-described “ordinary” existence.

Their reunion in New York City doesn’t result in the rekindling of a romance, but in Nora confronting a sorrowful loss of self that she can only appreciate in the presence of this man she once knew as a boy. Hae Sung represents the last link to a version of herself partially left somewhere else, a seed of a life that could’ve been but never blossomed in her homeland.

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Although not strictly autobiographical, key story elements in “Past Lives” were derived from Song’s thoughtful consideration of her own immigrant experience. In many regards, Nora serves as a fictional stand-in for the real-life Korean-born writer-director.


Similar to Nora and Song, I migrated from Mexico to the U.S. when I was in my early teens. What’s particular about having left your home country at that transitional age is that you were old enough to have forged significant bonds and enduring memories there, yet young enough that a new culture can still shape you into someone else entirely.

For us, South Korea or Mexico are not conceptual spaces that we solely know through our parents’ recollections or as occasional visitors. Instead, these countries are the context where foundational experiences occurred. Even if the place of our birth is now mostly part of a distant past, emotional remnants of those days linger indelibly in our subconscious.

“If you leave something behind, you gain something too,” Nora’s mother tells Hae Sung’s mother early in the film about their decision to leave. Migration entails an uprooting with the intention of flourishing elsewhere, but no one can fully prepare you for the gradual transformation you will undergo as the years mount in your adopted environment.

As a DACA recipient — an undocumented person with a work permit and limited privileges, which don’t include the freedom to travel abroad — I’ve always felt ambivalent about the balance between what I’ve lost and what I’ve obtained in this exchange that demands sacrificing the life you knew for the promise of a more “prosperous” one.

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That I migrated alone to live with relatives while my parents and younger brother stayed in Mexico exacerbated the pain of displacement. In hindsight, experiencing normal adolescent preoccupations with belonging and agency while simultaneously grappling with the set of unknown circumstances in front of me, put strenuous pressure on my self-worth.

Adapting to these foreign surroundings was like putting on a pair of shoes that fit a bit tight but with time, with use, slowly start to feel less uncomfortable. They may never be entirely right, but we do our best to try and mold them into something we can tolerate, perhaps even thrive in at some point.


One day, without realizing it, you wake up in the soles of another you, one who inhabits an interstitial divide between two distinct worldviews.

It is that precise intersection between who you are here and who you would have been there that “Past Lives” embodies with a delicate exactitude. The film argues that identity is more amorphous and fluid than our rigid understanding of it would like to accept.

Nora was born in Seoul, she grew up there, but has now spent most of her life abroad; does this mean she is now more Canadian or more American than she is Korean? The only efficient answer to such an intricate question is to say that she is none of them entirely and yet all of them partially at once or maybe each of them in varying degrees at different times.

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The boy I was in Mexico City doesn’t exist anymore. And yet there’s still something of that boy that accompanies me through every self-redefining transition. Every time I think of him, of me in that alternate universe where financial hardship didn’t push my family to choose my departure as a last resort to give me a chance, I mourn the man he didn’t get to grow into.

But I also mourn the milestones I’ve only witnessed in photographs and videos — the nieces and nephews I haven’t met, the many weddings I’ve missed. All the Christmases I didn’t hug my mom and not being able to say goodbye to my father when he died four years ago. Having to process that loss from afar left behind a lack of closure I still drag around.

In my constant ruminations about these existential concerns, sometimes I wonder how well my mom, my brother and I know each other after so long apart. No matter how profoundly our love unites us, there are tribulations specific to living as an undocumented immigrant that I cannot make them internalize the way I have, even if they sincerely empathize; just as I can’t ever comprehend the sorrow of those who stay behind, of a mother willing to let her child go with the hope that a better tomorrow awaits him.


It’s likely that this introspective evolution I’m describing is true of everyone as we get older, but the earth-shattering impact of starting over as an outsider thousands of miles away from a place you used to know as home has unique side effects.

Note that I’m writing this in a borrowed tongue, one that I didn’t inherit from my parents but learned through English as a second language classes. Over the years, my native Spanish and this newly acquired vocabulary became interchangeable. There’s no precise moment I can recall when my dreams first became bilingual and bicultural amalgamations of all the moving parts within me, but today they feel strangely normal. However, even after all these years, my accent has never diluted.

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While Song’s “Past Lives” gives a cinematic voice to this whirlwind of sentiments that often prove difficult to articulate, it’s in Nora’s unspoken and eventually tearful realization of what she’s lost and gained that I found the most comfort.

Nora’s cathartic cry near the end of the film washed over me not only like permission to weep profusely, but also as a liberating, peacemaking pact between the past and the present. It’s the acknowledgment that every wound we’ve endured throughout all of our permutations and across borders has contributed to our current, hard-fought sense of self.

Carlos Aguilar is a film critic and journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety and the New York Times. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics. @carlosfilm