Three people – Nora (Greta Lee), Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), and Arthur (John Magaro) – sit in a dimly lit bar at 4:30 am. The voices of the other patrons drowns out the animated conversation between Nora and Hae Sung, while Arthur sits silently. The camera lingers, drawing out the moment, imbuing it with significance. Who are these characters and how do they connect? Why does this one moment in their lives hold such significance?
Past Lives, the directorial debut from Celine Song, is a meditation on these moments, the small points in our lives that seem to hold greater meaning. Perhaps, as the Korean idea of in-yun suggests, these are interactions that are tinged with the echoes of our past lives. It is these echoes – subtle, unspecific, but strangely moving, that complicates the lives of our leads.
Once upon a time, Na Young and Hae Sung were childhood sweethearts in South Korea. Then, Na Young’s family immigrated to Canada and she took on the name Nora. Twelve years later, a simple Facebook search sparks a conversation, one with a hint of unspoken longing. Sure, it has the allure of digital romance. But, like many moments of young adulthood, it feels fleeting. The two of them see little chance of being in the same country, let alone the same city in the near future and decide to prioritise their immediate lives.
During an artist’s residency, Nora meets Arthur and there is an instant attraction.
Another 12 years pass. Nora and Arthur are married and Hae Sung is about to visit New York. And now we are stuck between two romances, each with their own possibilities. Two tales of star-crossed lovers reunited by chance. The story of Na Young and Hae Sung and the story of Nora and Arthur.
It’s a delicate tension, fizzing with undercurrents of race, culture and connection.
The film’s most poignant moments are those that show Nora and Hae Sung finding each other and parting ways across 24 years as their lives intersect and diverge. Their every interaction brims with subtext, their vulnerabilities hidden by feigned smiles. Their chemistry electrifies the screen, drawing us into their world and allows us a glimpse of their joys, pains, and longing. It thrums in the background as the two tour New York, sharing their ideologies while deliberately avoiding intimacy.
Past Lives distinguishes itself by the unassuming way it touches on grand philosophical themes while staying grounded in modern character-driven romance. It flits between the mundane and profound, crafting a story that develops well while still finding sparks of the ingenious.
This is especially true of its nuanced handling of Arthur, the white American husband who feels like he is unable to access an essential part of his wife’s life and personality because he can’t identify with the specificity of her immigrant experience. Their love for each other is apparent, but the neatness of their dialogue suggests the lingering distance. When Hae Sung enters their lives, Arthur is acutely aware of their connection and their need or closure. He allows the two the space needed to figure out their dynamic.
Song makes a confident debut as director, handling the many intricacies of these relationships and the vulnerability, growth and self-discovery of the characters with tact and grace. The film deftly sidesteps melodrama, making it feel authentic and more melancholy because of it. When the film’s conclusion delivers a fragile moment bereft of overwhelming romantic sensibility, the effect lingers.
The cinematography captures both the down-to-earth reality and the romanticised image of the big cities of Seoul and New York, while the score amplifies the emotions bubbling under the surface but doesn’t delve into theatrics.
Past Lives has a keen understanding of the threads of fate and circumstance that entangle us all. And it provides a quiet, but intricate portrait of both the uniqueness of the immigrant experience and the universal essence of human longing. The film received the ‘Best Feature’ prize at the 33rd Gotham Awards. The acclaim is definitely deserved.
This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.