The Plot: New York-based playwright Nora (Greta Lee) is preparing to meet her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Lee). They have not seen each in person for a long time. Nora left Seoul when she was 12, dreaming of a life less ordinary elsewhere. 12 years later, they reconnect online and strike up a connection with the potential for meeting up if their schedules can allow. Another 12 years pass by and Nora is now married to fellow writer Arthur (John Magaro). Hae Sung has finally made it to New York and wants to meet up with Nora. After all this time apart, they still have a certain connection – but only if they are willing to confront it and call it what it is…
The Verdict: In the opening scene of Past Lives, unseen strangers in a New York bar observe a Korean man and woman talking intensely to each other while an American man beside them looks like a third wheel. They comment on what they think is happening and what their connection to each other is. They are a good bit off the mark in their estimations. Who can understand the mysteries of the human heart? It is perhaps an ideal way to start this particular film, given that it is an inwards-looking love story which is open to interpretation but which is also curiously enigmatic in how it deals with its characters and where their lives have landed. The idea of a love triangle forming between these characters would be a blunt instrument which western cinema would no doubt embrace. Asian cinema though takes a different, more reserved approach and is refreshingly mature about adult relationships. There is more than a touch of Wong Kar-wai’s swooning, longing-filled romances to it.
Past Lives is an auspicious debut for writer-director Celine Song. Drawn from her own life experiences as an immigrant to the US and who also had a childhood friend she left behind in South Korea, it is a deeply personal story about the big themes. Love, fate (in-yun as Koreans put it), meaning, the past, present and future – but told from an intimate, gut-level approach which keeps its feet on the ground while occasionally reaching for the clouds too. Song’s script really is a thing of beauty here. The characters of Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur are so well drawn and do not need to say that much to immediately grab the audience and take them on an emotional journey with them. It is not so much a talky film as a film that leaves a good bit unsaid, allowing the audience to fill in the narrative blanks where the characters cannot quite say what they really mean. That is a familiar trope from Asian cinema which tends to be less direct and more restrained than its western counterpart. Some might find that slightly frustrating, while others might find it a sign of startling maturity from a fledgling filmmaker who is very self-assured.
There is an undeniable connection between Nora and Hae Sung, even from the early scenes and as it progressively moves forward in time by a pre-set amount (a possible nod to Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy). However, their connection has a missing piece and it is only towards the end that it becomes apparent what it is. One wants them to get together… but also not get together given the potential damage it might cause to the otherwise decent Arthur who masks his confused pain with dignity. The performances by Lee, Yoo and Magaro are all top-notch and performed with much thought. They portray that longing and understanding with loaded glances, internalising what their characters feel in a narratively sophisticated way. It is not often that one comes across a love story that is so delicately told but also so emotionally powerful that it leaves an impression on the mind and the heart long after the credits roll. Song’s direction is gently understated, making the subtle point that people make decisions for a reason and do not look back.
Past Lives is a quietly impressive first feature from Song that is as hard to resist as it is beautifully enigmatic. It is another winner from A24 Films – the hallmark of quality contemporary filmmaking from exciting new directors. Go see.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
Past Lives (USA / South Korea / 12A / 106 mins)
In short: Quietly impressive
Directed by Celine Song.
Starring Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Moon Seung-ah.