A tremendous, intelligent, and emotional debut feature that can only be described as timeless, writer-director Celine Song’s Past Lives captures love, affection, heartbreak, friendship, and loneliness in their purest forms. Spanning decades, yet feeling like the blink of an eye, Past Lives looks at human bonds that defy clear definition, and the thoughts many of us experience regarding fate and the people who float in an out of our lives. It’s unfathomably moving, finely attuned to human behaviour and attraction, and without question one of the best films of the year thus far.
Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae-sung (Teo Yoo) were inseparable childhood sweethearts growing up in South Korea, split apart when her family decided to emigrate to Canada. They go their separate ways into adulthood, with Nora attending university in New York City to become a writer and Hae-sung entering into his mandatory military service, spending his evenings drinking and eating with friends at a local watering hole. Curiosity gets the better of him, and Hae-sung starts looking on the internet to locate his childhood crush. Nora finds out about this and reconnects with him across the distance via Skype hang-outs. Not much comes of this, however, as Nora refuses to move back to South Korea, and Hae-sung doesn’t want to travel to America. Twelve years after that spark has been once again extinguished, Hae-sung finally makes the trip to New York City to visit, even though Nora is now happily married to a kind, supportive white guy and fellow writer, named Arthur (John Magaro).
Past Lives revolves around the concept of In-Yun, which loosely means fate or providence and is occasionally discussed by Nora and Hae-sung throughout the course of their relationship. It extends to their shared history and what things could’ve been like for them under different circumstances or in past lives. But despite how familiar that might sound on a surface level, Past Lives is anything but a standard romance or story of missed connections. Song puts in a lot of work detailing the ineffable space between two people that never evaporates, even under the forces of time and distance. Although they have followed their own directions – and in the case of Nora, a genuine sense of personal and professional fulfilment – they’ve never been too far from each others’ minds. It’s not a rapturous kind of love, but rather understated in its omnipresence, and always rich in potential.
Song’s approach to Nora and Hae-Sung’s relationship is broken up more or less into three acts, but in each portion of their lives together and apart, the writer-director is unafraid to let things simmer and play out in real time. The natural question that arises throughout Past Lives is “what if,” but Song balances that old chestnut by constantly pondering where each of these people go from here. When one chapter seems to end, does that mean the book of their lives together is fully closed? Do feelings of affection simply disappear because a period is put at the end of a sentence, or does a new language between two people start to evolve in light of life changing events? It’s a pleasing sort of love story where the romance is both obvious and obscured at the same time. It feels wholly realistic and alien in equal measure, mostly because filmmakers tend to struggle when depicting anything but the most basic tenets of human connection. Song’s script and observational style of filmmaking is locked into how people process emotions on a granular level; how we think, dream, and converse with those closest to our hearts.
Song has perfect collaborators in Lee, Yoo, and Magaro, all of whom are capable of speaking volumes through passing glances, smiles, and loaded body language without a single of dialogue necessary to back up their characters’ emotional states. Lee is solid as a rock as Nora, a woman who knows more or less what she wants out of life, and only subtly tweaks those goals and aspirations over time. Lee is careful to show how Nora is never rebuffing Hae-sung, nor is she trying to let him down easy. She plays their relationship naturally, and just takes things as they come. For his part, Yoo delivers a deceptively rich performance as a wayward soul searching for connection, displaying a sense of ennui that’s intrinsically tied to his upbringing and cultural identity. There’s a sadness in Hae-sung that has been pushed way down beneath a somewhat stoic exterior, but Yoo always makes sure that his flashes of inner conflict are impactful. Magaro completes the picture nicely as the man caught between Nora’s past and future, turning Arthur into a partner that’s both supportive and low-key threatened by the reemergence of this past crush.
Visually, Song depicts her characters both intimately and as parts of a much larger world that doesn’t pay them much mind. Although the film observantly offers up a clever framing device from an outside perspective that’s brilliantly followed through on closer to the conclusion, Past Lives treats its characters like they’re the only people on Earth. They live for themselves and each other, not strictly for the world around them. The viewer feels every bit of these characters’ bonds, breaks, homesickness, fears, and smiles because Song is able to place the audience firmly and assuredly in their shoes. Past Lives is almost like being hypnotized and seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Like all of the best works of cinema, Past Lives finds a vein of untapped potential in places often undefined and under-explored and mines every bit of truth it can from those spaces that linger in the memory, but are often hardest to put into words.
Past Lives opens in select Canadian cities – including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto – on Friday, June 9, 2023.
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