When I picked Past Lives out of the many unseen movies now playing, it was mostly because I read a note from the director Celine Song in an A24 email blast. She wrote of her love for this film: “…everything that it is, flaws and rookie mistakes and limitations and all.” It was like a personal invitation to the vulnerability and joy of her creation.
The film opens on our three main characters in a bar, with a sort of curious narration that is focusing on the body language to uncover the relationship we’re seeing. A fun game if you’re a people watcher. We journey back in time to South Korea to see Na Young and Hae Sung as childhood friends. Their tender connection is amplified with eye contact and innocent smiles. They notice each other more, and even their mothers take note. They are on the cusp of young love right before Na Young and her family immigrate to Canada.
We jump forward twelve years and Na Young (Greta Lee) is now called Nora, working as a playwright in NYC. Nora discovers that Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is looking for her, and they reconnect via social media and video calls. Their continued exchange is exciting, with careful dialogue and heavy with the reality of distance. This weight pulls Nora away from her life and goals too much, so she asks that they stop talking. Reluctantly, Hae Sung agrees and goes on to pursue his engineering career while Nora continues working and meets like-minded Arthur (John Magaro) at an artists’ retreat.
Another 12 years pass and we get to where we were at the beginning of the film. The two are reuniting, with the adoring support of Nora’s now husband Arthur. The strength of his character is powerful and without feeling scripted, he says exactly the right thing. There is an organic intensity in his role, Magaro’s presence is substantial even when he is saying nothing. He might be my favorite.
I have to briefly mention the awful direction of the background actors. The scene by the carousel is riddled with couples. There are some that disappear and reappear into the scene together and there are TOO many kissing couples. It is completely awkward and unnatural, and I lost focus of our main characters.
Letting that go, the feeling this film brings out is the real magic here. I am remembering the places I’ve been, the connections I’ve made. It’s like people are woven into the places we shared together The film touches on the story of “inyun” and the ties we might share from past lives. Maybe our relationships play a role in the trajectory of the different paths we take. And maybe they’ve been near before.
The end sunk me. Hard. Perfectly and intimately delivered.