Celine Song’s beautiful romance immediately draws comparisons to Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy


Past Lives

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘Past Lives’

Dir/scr: Celine Song. US/South Korea. 2022. 106mins

The rare love story that’s both impossibly romantic and crushingly pragmatic, Past Lives follows two people who might be soulmates, even though they have never kissed and haven’t been in the same city in 24 years. Making an utterly assured feature debut, writer-director Celine Song modulates the delicate tonal balance of this wise, wistful film perfectly, dividing her narrative into three distinct segments — following the characters when they’re roughly 12, 24 and 36 — with each passage more moving than the last. There are three superb performances at the picture’s centre, but none is more radiant than that of Greta Lee, gracefully capturing the spirit of a searching soul who seems to understand things about the nuances of love that are beyond the grasp of the rest of us.

Anyone who falls under the spell of this devastating film will feel altered from the experience

A24 will be releasing Past Lives, which just premiered at Sundance. The film’s thoughtful time-jumping romance will draw favourable comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, which similarly looked at the evolution of love over the decades from an intelligent, mature perspective. Reviews should be glowing.

In Seoul 24 years ago, 12-year-old Nora (Moon Seung-ah) and Hae Sung (Leem Seung-min) are close friends who have a crush on one another, but their adolescent stirrings don’t have time to develop: Nora’s family is moving to Toronto. Heartbroken, Hae Sung gives her a cursory goodbye, but their paths are destined to cross again. Cutting to 12 years later, Past Lives finds Hae Sung (still living in South Korea and now played by Teo Yoo) reconnecting with Nora (now a playwright in New York and played by Lee) on Facebook, the two picking up their friendship over Skype. But after a difficult conversation initiated by Nora concerning expectations over where their platonic relationship is headed, they fall out of each other’s lives again. Twelve years later, though, they’ll reunite in New York, despite the fact that Nora is married to Arthur (John Magaro), a novelist.

Song, herself a playwright, investigates the notion of In-Yun, a Korean concept which argues that our current selves (and the people in our orbit) are merely the most recent version of our past lives. Plenty of love stories touch on fate, chance and a cosmic sense of destiny, but one is hard-pressed to think of any as elegant as Past Lives, which features no fantastical elements. Instead, In-Yun is explored as a philosophical notion, with the central trio debating the merits of having a chain of past lives connecting ourselves to others.

The film’s realistic treatment of love is anchored by Lee’s beautifully controlled performance. Nora and Hae Sung clearly share a spark, but they never actually become  romantically involved — in part because the 24-year-old Nora seems reluctant to pursue it, understandable since they’re so far from each other geographically at that point in their lives. (But perhaps there’s more to it than that: subtly, Lee’s enigmatic portrayal suggests that Nora doesn’t want to return to Seoul metaphorically or literally, viewing Hae Sung as part of her past.)

Past Lives never demonises any of its characters, appreciating that life doesn’t work like the movies, where the people who are supposed to be together inevitably wind up in each other’s arms. It’s a sign of the wit and sophistication of Song’s poetic screenplay that the insecure Arthur admits to Nora that, if their lives were fiction, he would represent the boring husband who kept her away from the man she’s obviously destined to be with. Past Lives smartly examines how compromise, regret, missed opportunities, time and distance affect relationships — and how those invisible factors inform our romantic choices as much as hormones or storybook meet-cutes. Lee and Yoo have a warm, soulful chemistry that indicates that their bond transcends the strictures of a traditional love affair. They indeed seem intertwined since childhood, but maybe they aren’t meant to be together in a conventional sense.

Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s lilting, mediative score is as finely calibrated as the film, piano and guitar offering lovely counterpoint to the onscreen drama. And rather than forcing a tidy resolution onto these complicated lives, Past Lives instead lands on a generous, poignant finale that honours all the messy emotions that relationships — even the happiest — provoke. No matter what happens with Nora and Hae Sung, they have been irreparably changed from having met. Anyone who falls under the spell of this devastating film will feel similarly altered from the experience.

Production companies: Killer Films, 2AM

International sales: A24

Producers: David Hinojosa, Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler

Cinematography: Shabier Kirchner

Production design: Grace Yun

Editing: Keith Fraase

Music: Christopher Bear & Daniel Rossen

Main cast: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro