Despite the simple premise of Celine Song‘s Past Lives and its romantic comedy connotations, the film is anything but. Burning slow and composing its emotions until it knows when to release them in a flood of responsive passion, Song’s impeccable debut is a drama of humanism and quiet complexity.
Set over the span of 24 years, Past Lives – the title referring to a cultural Korean concept regarding the suggestion that every meeting between two souls is the product of countless interactions or near-interactions in their past lives – initially plays out in South Korea, where young Nora (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are childhood sweethearts. They go on “dates” and lightly rib one another regarding their academic strengths and who bested the other, but their blissful innocence is shaken when she and her family relocate to Canada; the bluntness in Hae Sung’s delivery of saying goodbye masking a wealth of sadness.
The film then moves to 12 years later where Nora (now played by Greta Lee, sublime), who as a child claimed she wanted to win the Nobel Prize, lives in New York as a writer; a Pulitzer and eventually a Tony standing as the two awards she changes her mind to in a running gag that speaks to the film’s subtle mentality of humour. Talking with her mother over Skype she starts to reminisce about her childhood in South Korea, eventually conjuring memories of Hae Sung, who she then searches for on Facebook, ultimately finding him and reconnecting with virtually.
The relationship that (re)blossoms with Hae Sung (Teo Yoo, impeccably beautiful in all his solitude), still in South Korea, is another of Past Lives‘ romantic comedy inclinations, but Song is far too smart to ever allow her film to slip into genre expectation. The moments the two share are undeniably beautiful, and the unspoken suggestion of how much they want to practice this connection physically is palpable, but life simply has other plans for them both, and there’s a realism in how they choose to acknowledge their connection without throwing caution to the wind.
Knowing that they won’t be in the same country as each other for at least a year, Nora fights against the pipedream and puts their conversations on a temporary break, but Hae Sung is all too aware of what that line really reads as, accepting that their reconnection was merely a moment in time worthy of being cherished instead of held to as the start of their continued love story. When Past Lives begins we note Nora, Hae Sung and the unidentified (at the time) Arthur (John Magaro) sitting at a bar together, their body language and dynamic sitting in a limbo-like state as to how all three are connected, which clues us in that the former two will ultimately meet in person, but Arthur’s presence suggests a love triangle dynamic that may or may not be working in Hae Sung’s individual favour; “Who do you think they are to each other?” is spoken by an unnamed character observing the trio atop the film’s 106 minute running time.
Meeting at a writer’s retreat, Arthur and Nora quickly bond over career aspirations and late night drinking sessions – it’s also here where she introduces Arthur to the titular concept – and when the film moves 12 years on, their marriage appears the picture of bliss, but Hae Sung’s presence lingers in a manner that suggests Arthur’s discomfort and Nora’s potential return to her roots; this culminating in the aforementioned opening scene, now presented in its actuality with their dialogue, furthering the trio’s unconventional dynamic, but always remaining respectful to each character and their thoughts on the other.
There’s such a grace to how Song navigates this story. Past Lives asks deep, philosophical questions on will vs fate and if change benefits our character or merely hides us from who we truly are. But such is its beauty that the answers lay in one’s own concept of reality, something perfectly and distressingly encapsulated in the film’s final, masterful scene that explodes with an understated shattering. However ambiguous Past Lives may seem here, it speaks to the assured competence of Song, a filmmaker entirely in control of her artistry and our sentimentality as viewers who can’t help but surrender to this story’s tragic beauty.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Past Lives is screening in Australian theatres from August 31st, 2023.
Past Lives was originally reviewed as part of this year’s Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival coverage.