Playwright and TV writer Celine Song makes her directorial debut with Past Lives, a film that made a big splash at the Berlin Film Festival, and now comes to cinemas with a huge amount of buzz.
It follows two childhood friends, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), who seem destined to be together as twelve-year-olds in South Korea, but become separated when Nora’s family moves to Toronto.
The story charts their reunion years later in New York, where Hae Sung has come to visit Nora (who is now married).
Each one marvels at how their connection has remained, and wonder if their destiny had been to be together. The most romantic movies tend to be about romance that can never be. From Casablanca and Brief Encounter, to twentieth century hits Lost In Translation and Call Me By Your Name, there is emotional gold to be mined from seeing two people who would be perfect for each other, only for life to get in the way.
Past Lives adds to that lineage, while bringing in its own set of complications. Song’s screenplay, and the performances of the main cast, all acknowledge how real life isn’t as clear cut as we would hope. Neither Hae Sung or Nora are especially unhappy with the lives they have, but that gravitational pull is something neither can turn away from.
Hollywood conventions dictate that Nora’s husband Arthur, played by First Cow star John Magaro, would be either abusive or clueless, but here he is neither. Indeed, he understands the role he plays in their story, joking that he would be the “evil White American husband standing in the way of destiny”.
It’s that openness in the story that makes it different, and so compelling. The entire story is gently told, but every change in expression, every brush of the hand, feels like an earthquake.
There’s a delicate balance of past and present scenes, amplifying the script’s discussion of in-yeon, a Korean-based philosophy regarding fate and past lives. Are Hae Sung and Nora experiencing their own in-yeon, or is it just time and wondering what might have been? Song considers it all beautifully.
Credit should also go to musicians Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen of the band Grizzly Bear for a soundtrack that echoes the mood without telling the audience what to feel.
A quietly devastating drama, Past Lives might be one of the early contenders for next year’s Oscars, and is certainly one of the best films you’ll see all year. Watch it before the awards season chatter begins.