Film Review: Past Lives

Still from the movie Past Lives. An adult man and an adult woman look longingly at each other on a subway train
FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, Dave Bradley, shares his thoughts on the American romantic drama, Past Lives.

South Korean-Canadian playwright and filmmaker Celine Song’s feature début is a beautifully restrained and sometimes painfully moving semi-autobiographical drama all about the lives we don’t lead and will never truly know.

Vaguely recalling other cinematic romances that could have happened but, somehow, didn’t (like in Wong-Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love), this is subtly rife with serious themes, and yet writer/director/co-producer Song wisely lets them drift alongside the characters. Which only makes them more powerful.

24 years ago, back home in Seoul, Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are schoolmates who walk home together and naively talk of how much they love each other. But, despite their devotion, Na Young’s family emigrates to Toronto, where she changes her name to Nora and life intrudes. As it does.

12 years pass, and Nora (now played by Greta Lee) is a writing student living in New York City, and Hae Sung (now played by Teo Yoo) has completed his military service and is preparing to move to China as part of a language exchange. Via a Facebook post, the pair reconnect by Skype and have long conversations about where their lives are going, and it seems like they’re going to somehow meet up and finally get together. And isn’t it strange how outdated this already looks when the pair use Skype, and not FaceTime or even (ahem) Facebook Messenger?

Once again, the relationship that apparently should commence doesn’t, particularly after Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro) at a writer’s retreat, and tells him about the Korean concept of ‘in-yeon’, which she half-jokes is a seduction technique but, in fact, will become more important later.

12 years after that (as in now), playwright Nora and author Arthur are married, and both meet with Hae Sung when he travels to New York, and there’s a lengthy, gorgeously-played sequence where the three have an uncomfortable dinner together. And, as part of a narrative that shifts between timeframes, we glimpse this awkward meeting in the opening moments here, as an unseen observer tries to determine what exactly is the romantic deal between the trio.

Lee is very much the focus, and her performance is wonderfully understated (and a long way from her comedy roles and Spider-Verse vocals), and she’s matched by Korean star Yoo (whose long, slightly unsettling stares are very real), and Magaro, who ensures that we feel for poor Arthur, who doesn’t want to lose Nora but, as well, adores her enough to let her go. Surely?

So much is going on here, including Nora’s immigrantion story, and her alienation from Korean culture, demonstrated when she has trouble talking to her visiting family. However, this too is carefully woven into the story, adding to the undercurrents of paths not taken and love unknown.

So sad and so lovely, and yet so cautiously unsentimental, Song’s film is one of the best of the year.

4 out of 5 STARS

Past Lives is in cinemas from August 31st

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