Movies from around the world depict all sorts of romantic relationships. Be that as it may, a movie like Celine Song’s Past Lives still feels like a rarity because it’s painted with subtle brushstrokes rather than with rollers and loud colors. The film is a quietly moving tone-poem that sneaks up on you as it chronicles the various stages of a friendship, segueing as smooth as butter from childlike crushes to full-fledged adulthood when reality has firmly set in for both parties.
The friendship of Na Young and Hae Sung starts as toddlers (played by Seung Ah Moon and Seung Min Yim, respectively). Na Young has a crush on her classmate, and Hae Sung is quick to give her words of encouragement, or cover her up with his sweater when she accidentally wets her pants. Their friendship is poised to be lifelong until Na Young’s parents uproot to Canada. Time marches on for both in their different countries. 12 years later, Na Young — now “Nora” (Greta Lee) — is an aspiring playwright living in New York City, while Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) remains in Seoul, studying engineering, still dreaming about the woman who got away.
Thanks to the wonders of social media, the two are able to reconnect. Despite significant time differences, they manage to pick up their friendship via various Skype calls. However, when it becomes increasingly clear that neither one of them is willing to drop the life they’ve cultivated for themselves to pursue a full-time relationship with the other, the video-calls slowly stop. Fast-forward 12 more years and Nora and Hae Sung connect again, this time in New York, where Nora is married and Hae Sung is still longing.
Song began her career as a playwright before making the leap to the screen, and Past Lives‘ structure as an intimate two-hander suggests as much. Despite being set in busy settings, Seoul and New York City, Song and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner possess the distinctly theater sensibility of making background activity fade whenever their film is focused on Nora and Hae Sung. The surrounding atmosphere is dreamlike to the point where it’s as if our two co-leads are lucid, lost in a world of feelings, mentally taxing “what ifs,” and sweet nothings whenever they speak.
Song’s script is also too smart to have her script be comprised of theatrics and overplayed pathos. Past Lives is predicated on the very realistic instances of two individuals who have had extensive time between meet-ups and conversations. Song is keen on letting their dialog breathe, their pauses be pregnant, and their vulnerabilities be revealed over the course of 100 graceful minutes.
Past Lives is as much a tale of the immigrant experience as it is a love story. Song touches on her own experiences, having grown up in South Korea before moving with her family to Ontario at the age of 12. Nora’s mom tells her mother, in lieu of their big move, “If you leave something behind, you gain something too.” That singular line is good enough to sum up Nora’s saga in multiple respects. Pursuing a career in New York City led her to meeting Arthur (John Magaro), a sweet writer, although a man who is made more aware of his shortcomings when Hae Sung enters the picture. Upon seeing the way Nora and Hae Sung converse — in their native, Korean — Arthur realizes that his wife’s childhood friend knows a portion of her soul that he will not. He can not. It leads to his own insecurity, which Song, like the rest of the film, treats with tenderness and empathy as opposed to dramatic overtures and outbursts.
For Nora, Hae Sung is the piece of her childhood as well as her homeland Korea. Someone she very well might’ve ended up dating, and maybe marrying, had her parents not pursued something they felt was more significant. For Hae Sung, Nora represents the part of home that left him too soon. The connection he’s been chasing since she departed. The running motif of Past Lives is the “In-Yun,” which translates to “providence,” but also has some literary weight in the way it encapsulates the idea of one’s unknowable past live shaping the course of the present. Song’s film has a great deal in common with Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, from the sweet human connection at its center to the gentleness of its presentation.
NOTE: As of this writing, Past Lives is streaming on Viki, an Asian streaming service (available with a free trial), and is available to rent on multiple platforms.
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro, Seung Ah Moon, Seung Min Yim, Ji Hye Yoon, and Choi Won-young. Directed by: Celine Song.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!