Past Lives – movie review

Writer-director Celine Song delivers a stunning debut with Past Lives. This thoughtful, compelling film gives a fresh voice to the migrant experience, while also working as a contemplative character study.

Song’s previous experience was as a staff writer on the fantasy TV series The Wheel of Time. This film bears little relationship to that series. Song’s script however does have a metaphysical element. The title alludes to the Korean concept of In-Yun; the idea that connections from past lives resonate in our relationships in this life. And while the film doesn’t treat it as anything other than legend, it provides a nice grace note to the story. The film plays with the idea of what we might call destiny; but ultimately is about shaping your own destiny.

Past Lives takes place over three time periods. Twenty-four years ago, 12-year-old Nora (played as child by Seung Ah Moon) is best friends with Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim). Although she dreams of being a writer, and he’s more scientifically-minded, they have a deep connection. But everything is in upheaval. Nora’s parents have decided to migrate from South Korea to Canada. The two friends separate awkwardly. Twelve years later, the now-grown Nora (Greta Lee) reconnects with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) via the wonders of Skype. Despite being separated by thousands of kilometres (she’s now in New York, he’s still in Seoul), their friendship rekindles. Perhaps, just maybe, there’s something more than friendship there? But Nora makes a crucial decision, and they lose touch once more. Another 12 years on, Nora is now married to fellow writer Arthur Zaturansky (John Magaro). They’ve settled into a kind of New York domesticity. But Hae Sung – who’s just come out of a long-term relationship – has finally decided to jump on a plane to NYC. Far removed from their childhood friendship, will his arrival spell joy or angst for Nora?

Although Past Lives is Song’s first feature, she demonstrates a fine directorial touch. As a screenwriter, she brings a subtle and sympathetic approach to the story and her characters. The style she brings to this film reminded me a little of Kagonada’s terrific Columbus (2017). Towards the end she leans a little more into the artsy New York vibe exemplified by, say, Noah Baumbach – but I’m okay with that. The film taps into the feelings experienced many migrants, of not being either fully in their “old” culture, or fully in the “new” one. As you might have gathered from the time frames, the film is full of allusions, some of which aren’t entirely obvious.

This is a slow-moving film for sure, but I never felt it dragging. Song’s deft handling of the material ensures that the story moves along, albeit at its own leisurely pace. DOP Shabier Kirchner gives the film a beautiful look and feel, ably complemented by an unobtrusive score from Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen.

In the acting department, the film is mostly a two-hander between Greta Lee and Teo Yoo; both of whom are exceptional. Yoo was recently seen in Park Chan-wook’s neo-noir Decision to Leave. While he played a supporting role there, he steps up for the challenging role of the introverted, complicated Hae Sung. Greta Lee (Russian Doll) brings a understated exuberance to Nora. The actors elegantly embody the restraint of Korea as seen in Hae Sung, contrasted with the brashness of America exuded by Nora. John Magaro (First Cow) has a more thankless task as Arthur. In one scene, he’s clearly a “third wheel” as Nora and Hae Sung speak to each other in Korean. But he’s very good, despite the limitations imposed on the character.

Past Lives is a wonderfully made, beautifully acted film, full of depth and nuance. If your taste runs to compelling human drama without melodrama, this is the film for you.

David Edwards

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