Two Korean childhood sweethearts reunite after 24 years apart to confront their fates and feelings for one another in Celine Song’s directorial debut.
A24 has done a remarkable job of giving Asian filmmakers a home to tell their stories, from Lulu Wang’s directorial debut film The Farewell in 2018 to co-writer/director Daniel Kwan’s genre-blending, Oscar-winning celebration of Asian culture Everything Everywhere All At Once just last year. One of their highest profile acquisitions from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was playwright Celine Song’s first feature film Past Lives, and it cements itself as an early candidate for one of the best films of the year for the delicate realism Song employs in her script as well as her direction, and star-making performances from her phenomenal lead actors.
Past Lives follows 24 years in the lives of Nora Moon (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung Jung (Teo Yoo) from their childhood in Seoul until the former’s family moves to America for a chance at a better life. Hae Sung thinks nothing of her leaving Korea, merely telling her goodbye before the two go their separate ways. But it’s evident that feelings for Nora linger within Hae Sung because twelve years later, he uses Facebook to try and reconnect with her when she’s fresh out of college and he’s out of his required military service, resulting in Skype conversations that last well into the night on Nora’s time zone.
Things come to a head even further after another twelve year period when Hae Sung travels to New York City, where Nora lives with her husband Arthur (John Magaro). The two Koreans reunite in person, and with that returns their romantic feelings for one another as well as the words unsaid that lie between them. But will their emotions build toward the fracturing of Nora’s married life, or will Hae Sung accept his destiny to live a life without his childhood sweetheart?
On paper, that description may sound like a gripping and steamy tale of obsessive love, but at its core, Past Lives is a gentle, affecting story made devastating by the power of Celine Song’s words in her screenplay, and restrained hands as director. The stakes may be high on a personal level for both Hae Sung and Nora, but every scene they spend together in person or virtual feels realistic in how Song allows time for her characters to linger in silence from wide shots framed at a distance between lines of dialogue.
This not only adds an authentic truth to the story, it also allows audiences the time to posit what’s going on inside the minds of Nora Moon and Hae Sung Jung, amplifies the quiet romantic tension between the two, and ultimately leaves audiences hoping for them to say the words they wanted to say to each other years ago. It’s also worth commending director Song for adding clever elements of storytelling that complement the well-written couple’s plight as well as set the mood, such as a merry-go-round in the background when they share a comfortable silence that posits the question how long are they going to keep their appearances up, and shadows accentuate Nora’s apartment at their final Skype call, creating a somber mood for the news she has to break to Hae Sung.
Song’s influences are also apparent throughout the experience of watching Past Lives; Hae Sung’s loneliness and inner conflict are wonderfully conveyed in shot compositions not unlike those from Edward Yang’s 2000 masterpiece Yi Yi, such as a brief instance where his silhouette smokes a cigarette in the dark, and another where he ganders out the window of his NYC hotel room with nothing to do, isolated in an unfamiliar city with nothing but his interior yearning.
Song also demonstrates a splendid transition from playwriting to screenwriting by depicting intimacy with visceral grace and sparse dialogue, such as a morning Nora and Arthur spend in bed sharing groggy, incomplete sentences and comfortable laughter, in addition to a conversation where her husband practices what he’s learned of the Korean language with his wife, and the two wax philosophically about how their choices brought them together.
To that end, Past Lives smartly and beautifully incorporates Asian spiritual ideas into the themes of the film through recurring references to in-yun, a force that binds all of us together through all of time and space, manifesting love’s savage fury into something cosmic and grand. And both Greta Lee and Teo Yoo demonstrate their silent passion for each other with amazing breakthrough performances, whether it’s during one of their many Skype conversations or when they just stare at each other with polite affection while sharing a train ride together, where their eyes show desperate longing. Lee in particular displays a naturalism that’s so assured in moments of playful sarcasm with Arthur, that their relationship also has endearing chemistry.
It could be argued that not enough time is spent on all three timelines equally enough for the narrative to pack all its punches, but the simplistic beauty of Song’s images and her effective use of silence more than make up for that. If there are any complaints to be had with Past Lives, it’s that the film does get needlessly self-aware at a point where Nora’s spouse suggests himself as “the evil white American husband staying in the way of destiny [in this story]”, when Magaro’s performance and demeanor do enough to ensure that Arthur means well.
But that is a minor criticism at the end of the day, because Past Lives is a moving and overall heartrending achievement. Audiences will be enthralled by the authenticity of Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship and reflect on their own missed connections, as well as contemplate the film’s spiritual ideas about the human condition, love, destiny, and what it is that constitutes a past life; not just who we were in another century, but who we were as children, college students, or residents of another town, and ultimately, whether we are happy with the choices we have made and who we are today. Celine Song’s entrance into cinema is simple in story but transcendent with its power, and that’s why Past Lives is one of the best films of the year.