Written and Directed by Celine Song.
Starring Greta Lee, Yoo Teo, John Magaro, Jojo T. Gibbs, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Kristen Sieh, Conrad Schott, Moon Seung-a, Seung Min Yim, Ji Hye Yoon, Won Young Choi, Ahn Min-Young, Seo Yeon-Woo, and Seung Un Hwang.
Nora and Hae Sung, two deeply connected childhood friends, are wrest apart after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. 20 years later, they are reunited for one fateful week as they confront notions of love and destiny.
There might not be a more devastating revelation than the notion that one has fallen in love with someone who could be the right person at the wrong time or location, spurring that endlessly profound feeling of “what could have been.” Writer/director Celine Song’s phenomenal debut Past Lives is a personal story that deals with love broken apart by one family emigrating from South Korea to New York, but it’s hard to imagine a person in the world that won’t find it relatable, stumbling out the auditorium in tears following an achingly powerful climax amplified by utilizing a tracking shot so fitting and well executed, every other filmmaker is going to have to work twice as hard to justify casually using them for coolness.
Starting presumably somewhere in the late 90s/early 2000s, Hae Sung (played by Seung Min Yim as a 12-year-old) has a crush on Na Young (Moon Seung-ah), a perfectionist who begins crying alongside him on a walk home from school because he did better on an exam. Both characters are sensitive souls, with Na Young being a habitual crier Hae Sung listens to and looks out for. She’s also an aspiring writer with large dreams. Even without much screen time dedicated to the childhood portion (if there is one nitpick to be had, I would have liked spending even five more minutes with them), what’s here is so expertly crafted that there’s no questioning he has romantic feelings for her.
For reasons that aren’t explained fully in detail (and don’t necessarily matter, anyway), Na Young’s successful parents decide to move to New York, leaving Hae-Sung. 12 years later, in a more digital age and while harmlessly checking up on past trends, Na Young, now Americanized and taking the name Nora Young (a mesmerizingly evocative Greta Lee), notices Hae-Sung (Tee Yoo, just as expressive and powerfully heartfelt) on her filmmaker father’s Facebook page, desperately looking to get in touch with her. And so she does, and they quickly become close calling on Skype, soon questioning their label and whether they should continue talking since they both are too career driven to travel to one another (it could also be argued that five more minutes here would also be nice considering how strong the chemistry is even through pixelated, laggy connections).
Without going into too much detail, there is another time jump of roughly 10 years, where Nora is now married to Arthur (John Magaro), and Hae-Sung is going through a breakup. He also decides it’s time to visit Nora in New York, fully aware that she is married because he needs closure. Nora is also nervously excited to be reunited with a childhood friend.
That’s the stage for a beautifully complex love triangle that refuses to fall into the usual clichés. For example, Arthur is supportive that Nora wants to meet up with this friend she hasn’t seen since childhood. There’s also a tender moment where he reveals to Nora that her sleep mumbling is done in Korean, movingly expressing that while he can teach themselves some of the languages, due to her emigration, there’s an entire world about her that he will never understand. It’s also a gentle, brilliant reminder that no matter how much we love someone, there will always be something we don’t quite or can’t fully understand about them.
With lush cinematography from Shabier Kirchner, Past Lives plays up the importance of location with gorgeous shots of South Korea and New York City, as if it’s a constant reminder of the choices they made and what was left behind/gained. When Nora and Hae-Sung see each other for presumably one of the last times in South Korea, there is a shot of them slowly walking down different vibrant paths, metaphorically walking into new lives. Again, there is also a tracking shot during the ending that drives home that what’s happening is easily the hardest thing these characters have ever had to do and might be the hardest thing any of us could ever be tasked with doing. They handle this complicated dynamic with such understanding and grace; it’s also hard not to come away from Past Lives simply feeling embarrassed from the times when one might have been in a similar situation and handled it poorly.
Past Lives also frequently references the Korean word “In-Yun,” essentially their mythology behind reincarnation. Through this, Celine Song further dramatizes not just the love that could have been but what could happen or has happened across different lifetimes. This is the definition of a tearjerker; something so lived-in without a single dishonest second (even the time jumps are some of the most seamless in recent memory) or forced bits and mature in execution. It’s a film about South Koreans and emigration that is, in actuality, one of the most identifiable romances anyone will ever see in their lives. Everyone should see it in every one of their lives.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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