From David Lean’s Brief Encounter to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, and Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy, there have been a substantial number of films released in the past about human connection and how it easily slips away. With Celine Song’s debut feature, Past Lives, a luminous and deeply resonant love story still maintains its freshness with its fundamental humanism and refreshing dignity of the human experience. The mostly New York City-set film presents a soul-crushing portrait of lost love, human connection, and reconnection that showcases poignant chemistry from its two leads, Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, where they employ their life experiences since their childhood. Where Lost in Translation profoundly examines the power of human connection, Song examines the power of human reconnection and the sorrow it can create from other obligations, relationships, and commitments as time passes.
With her debut feature, that comes from her own original screenplay, Past Lives offers very refreshing and naturalistic qualities. Both Lee And Yoo are wonderfully tailored and I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen due to how their chemistry ignites throughout their exchanges. Of course, a great portion of the film they do remain detached and even with them, they both convey both wit and honest pathos with their geographical dislocation and loneliness.
Courtesy A24 Films
The central relationship of the narrative is a portrait of a woman in her mid-30s who moved from South Korea to America with her family and away from her childhood friend of the same age, both of whom contemplate how their lives would have been if they had stayed closer in distance. Nora (Greta Lee) is a playwright and writer in New York. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) still resides in Seoul and decides to travel to New York City to reunite with Nora, who currently lives in New York with her loving husband Arthur (John Magaro).
While Nora has had success with her writing and has a very supportive husband, she contemplates the unyielding love she still holds for Hae Sung, whom she was able to reconnect with during facetime meetings before she married Arthur. The narrative unravels with fragmented flashbacks and hallucinatory imagery to a woozy score by composers Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen from the indie-rock group Grizzly Bear. The result is both elegiac and poetic, and the rich artistry on display brings a unique lyricism that feels personal and sorrowful. The situations of the two characters who fall prey to their own regrets and contemplations are rendered with a deep sincerity that also echoes the work of Wong Kar-Wai—especially 2046, which poignantly examines regret and imagines how our lives could be if we made different choices and decisions.
Courtesy A24 Films
The film opens up on a rather amusing note, where Nora and Hae Sung sitting together in a New York bar with Arthur off to the side, we hear off-screen voices wondering what the dynamics between the three are. We hear voices predict Nora and Hae Sung are a married couple on vacation as Arthur is the tour guide. From there, Song takes the audience into an emotionally engaging journey of many revelations and compelling exchanges that reveal what led everybody to that bar on that night.
The film tells the story of Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). We first see them sitting in a New York bar with another man, with off-screen voices wondering what the dynamic between the three is. Song spends the rest of the movie showing us. The film goes back to their childhood, where Nora is 12 and her name as a child was Na Young (Seung Ah Moon), and we see her upset by a young Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) after she did better on a test. As children, they were very close friends and she even jokes and tells her mom that she will “probably” marry him one day. Na Young ends up finding out from her parents that they are moving to Canada, and this saddens Hae Sung and their brosque farewell is even more excruciating for Hae Sung, and they both lose touch.
Courtsy A24 Films
The narrative moves forward 12 years, and Na Young has now changed her name to the English name Nora. She is an aspiring writer in Toronto, and a screenplay she co-wrote for now has turned into an indie b-movie that has a small Facebook following. On the homepage of the main page, she discovers that Hae Sung has been asking to get in contact with her on the page timeline. She looks him up on Facebook, sends him a message, and soon they are talking on long video chats that last hours. Obviously, chemistry is still there, as they missed meals, work, and even class to enjoy each other’s company, even after not seeing or talking with each other in 12 years with a near 12-hour time zone difference where they live thousands of miles apart.
We find out that Hae Sun just completed his required military service and is studying to be an engineer, which Nora jokingly admits she has no knowledge about. Their video chats are witty and even romantic, but eventually the distance weighs in, and Nora notices the video chats are pulling her away from her MFA studies. She is determined to be a successful writer. Hae Sun takes it to heart, and the two lose touch once again. Song places the story 12 years into present-day New York. Nora is now an established playwright and is married to Arhtur, a fellow writer. They married so Nora could get a green card from Canada to the United States, but the two are deeply in love with each other and sure to be supportive. Song also reveals how the two encountered each other at a writers’ retreat in the Ontario countryside, and their exchanges are played so delicately and understated—just like how everything unfolds in the film.
Courtesy A24 Films
After failed relationships. Hae Sung could never maintain a relationship. He notices women on subways and instantly thinks of Nora. When he’s with his friends, they realize how profound an impact she’s had on him over the years. Even when he downplays it after he finally books a trip to New York City, he says it’s for a vacation, and they know he wants to see Nora. Nora informs Arthur about his visit, which leaves him a little jealous, but he ends up trusting and forthright about it. Nora downplays the encounter as just a reunion of old friends, but you can sense Arthur is reluctant, and he can sense there is something deeper than what he is being told.
The film achieves a deft approach to her material and how it is executed. The creative decisions and deep characterizations in the film are achieved without cliches and with bright subtly. Each of the three main characters is given such rich vulnerability that you end up empathizing with them with deep affection. Magaro’s character is handled with the most nuance. While he could easily have been a one-dimensional character used for easy laughs and simple obstacles, his genuine love for Nora makes the triangle even more intricate. There is a great moment in the film where he attempts to speak Korean once he encounters Hae Sung. Arthur even asks Nora if she finds her attractive, but you can sense in Lee’s performance how her attraction is obvious. One of the film’s most immensely satisfying scenes is when Hae Sung and Nora hangout on the day before Hae Sung is about depart. They go on a ferry ride through Staten Island and look at the Statue of Liberty, and in one impressive long take, they walk in a park in a very wide shot that lands in a two-shot with the immaculate metropolis cityscape in the background. Their scenes recall Linklater’s Before Midnight, as the characters walked throughout Vienna and through gardens, shops, and streets of the city. Another great moment is when they ride on the subway together, you can sense both want to hold hands but resist the temptation.
Courtesy A24 Films
Past Lives is a great film, great for the ways it examines human reconnection and how certain people from our past can make a profound impact on who we are and what we want. It’s a film that examines elapsed time, in which the characters cite the Korean concept of fate called “In-Yun,” which ties two people together during the course of their lives, and how a connection holds significance with certain people and things in their past lives. Song plays this concept out with her themes and artistry, establishing a rich style and rhythm that echoes the work of a seasoned master filmmaker. As the narrative untangles with regrets, obligations, and melancholy, Past Lives builds to a remarkable conclusion—a soul-crushing finale that divulges the idea how true human connection will always live on, but even as it becomes a memory, it will be left unfinished as long as we’re living, and even at that, according to the Buddhist belief that is left secular in the film, certain human connections are energy that continue to be channeled through the endless voyage of time. If you want a break from franchises, sequels, and superheroes and want something that is worth experiencing on the big screen, Past Lives is that understated gem that you should attend to. It’s a perfect little indie movie, one that I hope finds its audience and builds stronger legs in the near future.
Past Lives is now playing in limited theaters and will open in Metro-Detroit theaters Friday, June 23rd.