Not Just A Love Story: 'Past Lives' Gives A Glimpse Into Growing Up Bicultural

Author: Hali Kil

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Past Lives , a film centring on a nostalgic love story between childhood soul mates, is one of this year's Oscar nominees for best picture .

Although it's been somewhat overshadowed by “Barbenheimer,” Past Lives is worth the watch. It can provide meaningful insights on how immigrant youth grow into their cultural identity.

The film follows childhood sweethearts Nora and Hae Sung, who grow up together in Seoul, South Korea, then are separated when Nora's family immigrates to Toronto. They briefly reconnect as 24-year-olds via regular video calls, but their relationship fizzles.

Fast forward 12 years, and Nora is now a playwright in New York living with her husband, Arthur. Hae Sung has not forgotten about Nora and decides to visit her in New York. The two face their adult lives and realities, and although they wonder about what could have been, Hae Sung ultimately returns home.

Trailer for 'Past Lives.'

Read more: Oscar nominees 2024: 'Past Lives' spotlights the pull of first love alongside the yearning for glory

Not just a love story

Reviewers have dubbed Past Lives an achingly sad love story that makes you question where you would be now if you had ended up with the one that got away.

But under the surface level, the film tells a subtle tale of the sometimes chaotic and emotionally draining experience of newcomer youth as they grow into their bicultural identity . Their feet are in two worlds: their heritage culture and their current culture. And they must learn to ebb and flow between these worlds effortlessly.

As a developmental psychologist, I saw clear parallels between Nora's experiences with her two loves and immigrant young people's emotional turmoil as they grow up belonging to two worlds. Hae Sung represented Nora's ties to her Korean heritage, while Arthur represented her identity as an American. Past Lives draws us into Nora's intimate experiences as she courses between these two identities as a person who is bicultural.

This image released by A24 shows Greta Lee, from left, John Magaro, and Teo Yoo in a scene from 'Past Lives.' (Jon Pack/A24 via AP) Navigating a bicultural identity

Psychology research shows that immigrant youth who feel they truly belong to both their heritage and current cultures are socially, emotionally and psychologically well-adjusted . Referred to as bicultural competence, immigrants who can move more fluidly between their heritage and current cultures have better self-esteem and mental health , and report having higher quality relationships with others .

However, many immigrant children also have difficulty finding comfortable footing between these two worlds. In the film, reflecting on meeting with Hae Sung, Nora says to her husband,“I feel so not Korean when I'm with him, but also more Korean.”

Nora's experiences are not uncommon among immigrant young adults who move at a young age. These individuals can feel that their heritage culture starkly contrasts with their currently held values that are based on the culture of their adoptive country. Yet, for many immigrant youth, spending time with others who share their heritage can increase feelings of closeness and connection to their ethnic and racial identity.

Nora's bilingual code-switching - spontaneous shifting between two languages in a single conversation - also mirrors immigrant youths' shifting between their bicultural selves. Most immigrant bilingual youth tend to code-switch easily , and use the communication skill to mark how fluent they can be in both of their cultures.

'Past Lives' follows childhood sweethearts Nora and Hae Sung, who grow up together in Seoul and reconnect as adults. (Jon Pack/A24 via AP)

Read more: How non-English language cinema is reshaping the Oscars landscape

Korean Canadian director Celine Song, who wrote and directed the film partly based on her own life, has actually lived the intimate bar scene in the film in which Nora code-switches when talking to Arthur and Hae Sung. In recalling her own experience, Song said,“At one point I realized I was translating beyond language and culture, that I was actually translating between two parts of my own self... But both of those people are me.”

Two trees in one pot

Past Lives may resonate with many immigrant adults who arrived to North America at a young age, partly because it mirrors their own experiences. The film draws upon a life lived between two cultures as the two clash and flow both literally and figuratively.

Past Lives director Celine Song. (Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

When explaining why she and her husband fight, Nora reflects how immigrant youth form their bicultural identity:“It's like planting two trees in one pot. Our roots are finding their place.” For many who live between cultures, bicultural identity takes root like two plants in one pot.

Nora's story evokes a reflection of the push-and-pull of heritage and current cultural values, traditions and norms among bicultural youth. So be sure to put the film on your list if you're planning on watching your way through this year's nominees.

Not into sentimental love stories? No problem.

Instead, watch the film with the aim of immersing yourself into a first-hand account of how immigrant youth learn to unite their loved cultures. You might find your eyes opened up to the rich, and sometimes rollercoaster, experience of a bicultural identity.

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