THE STORY – Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. Decades later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront destiny, love and the choices that make a life.
THE CAST – Greta Lee, Teo Yoo & John Magaro
THE TEAM – Celine Song (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
For those of us blessed – or perhaps cursed – with an outsized love of film, it can sometimes feel as if there’s nothing new to be unearthed in cinema. Even the most beloved films can feel predictable or unsurprising when one watches hundreds of movies a year. That’s what makes “Past Lives” such a miracle. It not only investigates a specific type of complicated emotional connection that feels completely brand new, but it does so with beauty and a quiet style. Writer-director Celine Song brilliantly explores so many specific and intricate areas of the heart that she may as well call herself a cardiologist.
This supremely modern love story centers around Nora (Greta Lee), an author who relocated with her family from South Korea to Canada before making a home for herself as an adult in Manhattan. Years after immigrating to America, she reconnects over the Internet with her childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). After things start to begin to feel serious, even over Skype, Nora makes the tough choice to pause their virtual friendship. But then, after over two decades apart, Hae Sung comes to visit New York, leading to an in-person meeting that brings new emotions to the surface and resurrects old ones.
This exploration of the complexities and complications of human connection avoids practically every cliché in the book. It wisely floats above any sort of contrived conflict, and this gentle quality is reflected in the filmmaking. The film is patiently edited and doesn’t over-rely on flashbacks, as might be expected in such a decade-traversing story. Song’s assured camera glides through and around the characters’ lives, favoring long takes and steady movement over handheld work.
Although “Past Lives” deals with the specifics of emotions, it’s not made up of histrionics or monumental, teary moments. Song maintains an empathetic tone in how her characters are depicted and interact with each other. In particular, the married couple of Nora and Arthur (John Magaro) are people who’ve clearly done a lot of work to be able to identify and talk through their feelings, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel them. In fact, the emotional intelligence they display makes for startlingly honest conversations. However, it’s not as if the film is cold or overly intellectual. The characters’ discussions are injected with a realistic level of tossed-off humor and funny observations, giving the audience the warm feeling of watching a happy couple share a brief inside joke.
Song has struck gold with her main trio of actors. As Nora, the central planet around which the film’s two men revolve, Lee shines. She’s able to, with supreme subtlety, show the different ways that her character acts around her husband, Arthur, versus her old flame Hae Sung. These alternate tactics are rooted in both her individual relationships with these men and their different backgrounds – namely, Arthur is American, and Hae Sung is South Korean. These two men represent the two halves of her identity as a Korean-born American. As the film is based on Song’s real-life experience with her own immigration and assimilation, there’s a supreme truthfulness to Nora’s unique experience. As an individual, Lee emphasizes Nora’s humor and quick-wittedness – she’s obviously adapted well to the patently snappy energy of New York City. It’s easy to see why these two men quickly developed feelings for her.
Yoo’s Hae Sung is much less of an open book than Nora. Much of his characterization comes from Nora’s recountings of him to her husband, and Yoo crafts Hae Sung to perfectly match these descriptions. He’s steadfast and short-spoken (at least, at first), but never in a way that makes his character anything less than inviting. His hesitation to fully divulge his inner feelings makes the audience lean forward in hopes of noticing a crack in the armor. Magaro has the difficult task of playing someone who, on paper, seems like an impediment. Arthur even calls this out – he’s aware that his role in this chapter of Nora’s life makes him appear like the roadblock standing in the way of her potentially happy life with Hae Sung. But Magaro, even in his limited screen time, is able to fully endear himself to the audience without ever sacrificing his character’s complexity. He reckons with, questions, and even teases Nora about her connection with her childhood sweetheart, but always in a way that comes from a place of genuine curiosity rather than jealousy or suspicion. He merely wants to know as much as possible about Nora – he’s infatuated with all parts of her, even those which most onscreen husbands would rather not explore.
With her stunning directorial debut, Song has crafted a beautiful film that stands alongside such “cinema of yearning” classics as “Brief Encounter” and “Before Sunrise.” Still, it stands apart thanks to her specific perspective and intentional skirting of expected story beats. It’s a heart-stopping, lovely story guaranteed to make audiences long for connection, reconnection, and the beautiful melancholy of heartbreak.