The Brilliantly Bittersweet Past Lives Is Impossibly Romantic

Movies Reviews Celine Song
The Brilliantly Bittersweet Past Lives Is Impossibly Romantic

Named partially for inyun—a Korean concept encompassing fate, intention and consequence, like a reincarnation-bridging butterfly effect—Past Lives’ bittersweet romance brings to mind Longfellow’s ships passing in the night. Not because the decades-spanning relationship between Greta Lee’s Nora and Teo Yoo’s Hae Sung is inconsequential, but because it is consequential in spite of its briefness and its emotional opacity. It reminds us that it is possible to encounter magic, conjured by the flow of everyday actions, when we pass people multiple times along our lives’ intertwining rivers. It reminds us that tethering your life to someone else’s to brave the current together is an act of defiant perseverance. Drawing from a long tradition of yearning romances, while showcasing debut writer/director Celine Song’s unique abilities with precise writing and delicate scene-crafting, Past Lives flows from decade to decade with ease, encompassing immigration, coming-of-age, and creative and romantic ennui—only to reach a heartrending acceptance of our exquisite inability to have it all.

Nora isn’t really caught between East and West, just as she is never really caught between her childhood crush Hae Sung and her husband Arthur (John Magaro). Whenever we meet her—whether as a kid, about to leave Hae Sung and Korea behind, or as a twentysomething connecting with him on Skype, or as a married woman hosting his visit to New York—she’s made her choices, or has had them made for her. As Past Lives takes us through its time jumps, we understand that the divergent desires pulling on Nora and Hae Sung are simply heightened versions of the forces acting on all of us. We all get through the day, magnetically suspended between our regrets and our realities.

Song’s strongest thematic thrust as she navigates the film’s three acts—spanning Nora’s childhood, loneliness, reconnection, loss and re-reconnection—is that this isn’t exceptional. The initial, underplayed childhood crush is chaperoned and shot with an emphasis on the physical, adult obstructions that keep kids apart (seatbelts, branching paths home, sculptures in the park that become impromptu jungle gyms) and the little things that bind kids together. Grades are a sticking point, as is crying. A head rests on a shoulder. Hands are held. But it can’t last. On Nora’s last day, Hae Sung can barely bring himself to look at her, let alone speak to her, on their forked walk back from school.

A dozen years later, the urban isolation and yearning of Wong Kar-wai permeates the screen as Nora crawls into her cramped apartment and Hae Sung pounds soju in a packed bar. But Past Lives excels because they aren’t positioned as eternally bound lovers who will always reunite, or as tragic heroes, their longing frozen on video chat like a digital Tantalus. Their awkward yet warm conversation, after Nora finds Hae Sung on Facebook, is one of easy familiarity. Lee’s nervous playwright keeps messing with her hair, and her Korean has gotten a little rusty. Yoo’s bottled-up engineer is as creaky as a smitten Tin Man. But Song’s shallow focus, allowing the words on their computer screens to blur, and tight framing draws them together in a tight hug, though they’re speaking across the world. But, just as Nora’s move loomed over her childhood, her ambition looms over this relationship. She can’t be waiting around, dividing her brain between time zones, when she’s got plays to write and dreams to achieve.

Another dozen years go by, bringing us to the era of Past Lives’ winning barroom prologue. Nora has married a fellow writer, while a break-up has led Hae Sung to finally make the trip to New York that he never could. As we return to the opening moments, where off-screen voyeurs try to guess the relationship between Nora, Arthur and Hae Sung, we realize that we’ve been lovingly duped into carrying the weight of three full lives on our shoulders. Despite seeing so little of them that two-and-a-half decades were able to be smooshed into an hour-forty-five, Song’s scalpel carves out exactly what we need to know. 

Drawing from her own experience and a keen sense of psychology, Song writes clever, contained, jewel box conversations. They can have the hesitant, rekindling awkwardness of Yi Yi, or—thanks to an effective use of hairstyling and wardrobe (as well as the posture and demeanor of its leads)—the ambling melancholy of Richard Linklater’s meditations on time’s passage. But they all allow Lee and Yoo (both in star-making performances) quiet depth. 

Sharp and confident, Lee’s teasing yet thoughtful demeanor boosts up the lovelorn Yoo, square-jawed and defeated. In her, the successful Korean American woman, he sees freedom and success and history. In him, the devoted Korean man, she sees tradition and comfort and understanding. They are so much to one another, which is why inyun keeps coming up. They are so much to one another, but still not all they feel like they should be. And as they talk, as their vessels gam in respite from the greater missions of their lives, we follow the words and the spaces between them to the inevitable conclusion. Past Lives’ most melodramatic sequences only bring us to the brink of possibility to remind us that we know we’ll walk back from it, and to make us feel the pang of doubt amid the certainty. The script’s larger, perfect structure (and Magaro’s soulful acting) even gives Arthur and the concept of complicated, invested-in relationships their due at the moment they need it most. The balance is exceptional, and we coast on it across the years.

Song doesn’t just choose her words carefully. Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner can open up the city, letting a quiet ferry ride breathe deeply of the wide sky, but excels at cramped compositions. One, as Hae Sung walks into Nora and Arthur’s apartment, enhances one of the movie’s best jokes. Up-and-coming composers Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear (of Grizzly Bear) nudge and prod our tear ducts, as if they needed it. All the sweetness and pain is there in the words and in the distance, close and far, between Hae Sung and Nora.

Past Lives is a powerful and delicate debut, a beautiful necklace strung with crystalized memories. Its ideas on love and time, and how one impacts the other, are simple and sear across your heart. It is about all the potential people we could have been, and how none of them matter as much as the person we are—and the fool’s errand of trying to figure out what we’d be if we cobbled ourselves together differently. Those possibilities are best left in the past. Besides announcing Song as a brilliant observer of dialogue, interaction, and tone, Past Lives is a strikingly romantic movie about what composes our lives. We are the decisions we make, and the decisions others make for us. But we are also the collection of connections we make, living ship’s logs, dutifully recorded. Each repeat encounter is a minor miracle, and every first encounter has that potential. And there can be love in each, however brief. “So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, / Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

Director: Celine Song
Writer: Celine Song
Starring: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro
Release Date: June 2, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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