Written and directed by Celine Song in her feature debut, Past Lives is a crushingly realistic depiction of fate and other myths.
There’s an entire movie-making industry behind the concept of soul mates, whether it be an effortlessly breezy rom-com or its more “serious” counterpart, the swooning romantic drama. The first film from Korean-Canadian filmmaker and playwright Celine Song aims for neither. Past Lives is as much about the absence of romance as it is about the presence of human connection and longing in its most familiar forms. That’s what makes it so realistic and, therefore, soul-crushing.
Past Lives stars Greta Lee as Nora, a Korean playwright who emigrated to Canada at age 12 with her family. Like Davy Chou’s Return to Seoul just last year, the film’s structure cuts back and forth in time, tracing Nora’s childhood to early adulthood and then finally the present day. Think the Before trilogy, but condensed into 106 minutes. When Nora left Korea — her name being Na-Young at the time — she also left behind a childhood sweetheart, Hae Sung (played by Teo Yoo as an adult). He eventually tries to track her down when they’re both 24, and the two reconnect for a time over Skype.
The film is apparently semi-autobiographical, as it follows Nora’s journey as a self-assured artist who makes her way to New York City and into a marriage with Arthur (John Magaro), a fellow writer. All the while, Hae Sung is constantly in the back of her mind, a clear stand-in for her memories or “past life” in Korea. What would her life had been like if she never left? What if she had somehow gone back?
“In the story, I would be the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.”
Living in the past is a well-worn story idea, but Past Lives finds clever ways to subvert it. The audience is primed to root for love. For soul mates. But the film isn’t so emotionally predictable in either direction. There’s an existential dread to some of the ideas it puts out there, like how tenuous our current relationships are based on factors completely outside of our control. This person is only your best friend because you lived in the same college dorm. You only have this job because your parents moved to this place when you were a kid.
Nora explains this to Arthur at one point in the film, as she discusses the Korean word “inyeon” and how it relates to connections between strangers. It’s a mundane sort of fate that argues meaning behind every interaction, no matter how small. We cheer for soul mates onscreen because we want a victory out of two people having a momentary connection. Past Lives is more about the victory that goes even beyond the platonic ideal.
These melancholic reflections only work as well as they do from script to screen because of the central performances. Song’s dialogue is realistic in a way that thankfully transcends mumblecore and characters talking over each other incessantly in order to deliver a cheap immersion. Instead, characters talk to each other in a scripted way, but the choice of words and reaction to those words is where the realism hits hard. It’s far more effective in what isn’t said verbally than it is the words themselves. Lee in particular gives one of the most painstakingly precise body language and overall nonverbal performances in years. It builds to a final scene that is devastating, long-lasting, and worst of all, true.
Past Lives premiered earlier this year at Sundance and received high marks from critics as an early high point for the year in film. With those high expectations to factor in, it’s a miracle the film gives as much as it does. There are parts where Song is far more confident in her visual framing than others. She and her cinematographer, Shabier Kirchner, find a lot of room to bring spirited energy to otherwise droll webcam scenes thanks to a sharp cutting between close-ups, screen grabs, and boxed-in lighting.
A particular Statue of Liberty scene is a wonder work of perspective and angles that services the story and its main messages faithfully. Other parts of the film can be a bit more heavy-handed in the obvious dichotomy of two characters walking down different paths and so on, but these choices only stand out because so much else comes off as far more considered.
The composition can also be a mixed bag at times, not because the music by Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen is a letdown (far from it). But certain cues miss their mark in achieving emotional engagement without distraction, and it’s hard to tell if some of these occasional editing misfires are purposeful as a means to keep the superb pacing steady. It’s almost overkill, but not quite.
The bottom line.
These nefarious nitpicks aside, Past Lives may not be the movie you might expect from all the raves and best-of-the-year predictions. That’s fitting considering how so much of this film is very much about the death of expectations. It’s best to appreciate this film, this story, right where it’s at, which is on a deeply personal level. An observational sadness. Whether it’s on the immigrant themes, the concepts of unrequited love, the paths not taken, or a mixing of everything in between, Past Lives is destined to strike a chord with just about anyone who searches for it.
Past Lives is now playing in select U.S. theaters and expands on June 9. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of A24.
PAST LIVES - 8.5/10