NAVIGATING THE DATING WORLD can be as difficult as it is rewarding. Everyone’s searching for ‘the one’ but to find them, you’ll likely have to sort through copious amounts of walking red flags and ick magnets. There’s also the issue that, at some point in our lives, most of us will have to realise that the one that got away, did in fact, get away, and that nothing we do can change that. There are a handful of ways to deal with this realisation—some far more effective than others—but it’s safe to say that Sofia Coppola and Spike Jonze’s healing process falls on the less effective side of the spectrum.
The 20th anniversary of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation came to pass last week, and it’s got us—and Coppola—questioning our place in the world, looking back on missed opportunities, and reminiscing on loves lost, as was always intended. A particular character in the film was reportedly inspired by Coppola’s own old flame, Spike Jonze. That character, the husband of Scarlett Johansson’s character, is portrayed less than favourably and is more interested in pursuing his career than emotionally supporting his wife.
Spike Jonze’s Her is the other side of the same story. The 2013 film is similarly inspired by Jonze and Coppola’s breakup and follows a man in the near future grappling with his recent divorce and finding solace in an AI operating system. Eerie stuff right? Rooney Mara plays the main character’s ex-wife in a role that was, again, reportedly inspired by Jonze’s own ex. Coppola recently revealed she actually hasn’t seen Her, reasoning that “I don’t know if I want to see Rooney Mara as me,” which also confirms Coppola believes she’s the inspiration behind the character.
We can say with some certainty that fictionalising your ex and making them look like a jerk on the big screen for millions to see is not the best sign that you’re coping with a breakup particularly well. Clinging to the past is unhealthy, and Jonze and Coppola’s drama has come at a felicitous time, as Past Lives, another exploration of love gone by, is currently doing the rounds in theatres across the globe and leaving audiences pondering what could have been. Except, Past Lives is a far better example of how to deal with heartbreak.
Past Lives is a story of lost love, changing identities, the fallacious fabrications of memory, and of course, moving on. The film follows the story of childhood friends from South Korea who grew apart after one of them moved overseas. After a few decades of longing and unsuccessful attempts to stay in touch, Nora, played by Greta Lee, and Hae Sung, played by Teo Yoo, reunite in New York City for a week spent reconsidering the decisions that have led them to that point.
Both characters have been scarred by their memories of each other. For Hae Sung, his hope of ending up with Nora, though buried deeply, has prevented him from branching out and finding someone else.
For Nora, her memories of Hae Sung, and ambitious expectations of her own life, have meant she’s incapable of feeling truly fulfilled and constantly questioning whether her life could have been better.
An integral aspect of Past Lives is the Korean concept of in yun. There isn’t an English translation that quite captures the meaning behind it, but broadly, in yun refers to fate and reincarnation. In yun is the connective tissue that binds all interactions. Something as simple as bumping into someone on the street can be explained by in yun, as that interaction, though fleeting, indicates a connection in a past life (hence the films title). It is said that for two people to get married, they require 8,000 layers of in yun.
The concept of in yun is a parable for Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship throughout the film, and of our own inability to move on. Nora and Hae Sung have in yun, but never enough to make things work. They may have met in hundreds of past lives, but haven’t found the life where they were meant to be together yet. It will make more sense if you’ve ever felt you met the right person at the wrong time (La La Land style) but it also explains why some relationships just aren’t meant to be.
Towards the film’s conclusion, Hae Sung asks Nora, “If you had never left Seoul, would I have still looked for you?” The question lingers for a moment, as both the characters and the audience are confronted with the idea, but the answer is no, he probably wouldn’t have. Hae Sung is in love with his memories of Nora, not the person she has become. The distance and time between them has not only kept them apart, it’s allowed them to build up idealistic perceptions of one another. “We aren’t meant for each other,” they both conclude. And only once they have realised this can they truly move on.
The exploration of memory in Past Lives draws connections with our own non-fictional lives. Past Lives teaches us that the fondness we have for the one that got away is shaped by our memories of them, not who they are now. The person you knew will never return, and to quote the great poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “There is no past that we can bring back by longing for it.”
When watching Past Lives in theatres, you may become acutely aware that every other member of the audience is replaying the memories of an old flame in their mind. You’ll know this because you’ll likely be doing it too. This is not a weakness. Revisiting a time of happiness in your mind is not a sign that you’re living in the past, but an opportunity for closure.
There’s a lesson to be learnt from Coppola and Jonze’s situation, and Past Lives drives it home. We all hold fond memories of the one that got away, but clinging to them can only hold you back. That time is gone, it will never return, and only after accepting that can you move on. And anyway, the laws of in yun dictate that a breakup isn’t the end, but simply another layer in a past life. Maybe in another lifetime, it’ll be different.