‘Must see’ movie: Past Lives
Past Lives begins in a bar, with an unseen couple playing a game where they attempt to figure out the relationships of their fellow drinkers. Right now, they’re probing the connections between three people: Nora (Greta Lee), who is nestled between Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Arthur (John Magaro). Are the Korean Nora and Hae Sung together? Are they tourists here with their white tour guide? Or are Nora and Arthur actually the ones together? Nora looks into the camera knowingly, as if to communicate what the viewer likely already knows: It could never be so simple
In her debut feature, writer/director Celine Song proceeds to tell a decades-spanning love story preoccupied with all the ineluctable fine details of life that decide the destination of one’s adulthood. The things we decide for ourselves and those that are chosen for us, the people you know now and those you once knew, the feelings that fade and the ones that remain with achingly sharp clarity. It is not a failed love story, but it is a lost love story, as its characters fall victim to the realities of time and circumstance and are left wondering what may have been if either of those things had been different
The film flashes back 24 years, when a young Nora, then called Na Young, and Hae Sung are walking home from school in Seoul. She’s crying. For once, he beat her score on a test. It’s clear the two are close; in fact, Na Young tells her mother she will “probably” marry Hae Sung one day. “He’s manly,” she explains
But Na Young and her family are moving to Canada (Na Young and her sister choose their own English names). While it’s an exciting adventure for Na Young, it’s too much for Hae Sung, who wasn’t aware his friend was leaving. Her curt goodbye doesn’t help. The two lose touch
We move ahead 12 years. Nora is an aspiring playwright in Toronto. On a whim, Nora looks Hae Sung up on, where else, Facebook. Surprised, she finds that he has asked on his timeline if anyone knows her whereabouts. She reaches out, and soon the two are conducting long video chats, catching up, a spark still there through the dozen years and thousands of miles. Hae Sung has completed his mandatory military service and is studying engineering. We see them living their lives between video chats, him out drinking with his friends, her writing and studying (she’s in an MFA program). But the connection is what consumes them
So much so that Nora abruptly puts a stop to it. “I want us to stop talking for a while,” she says. She’s distracted from her studies, her work – the ambition that caused her to cry in Seoul has never disappeared.
Of course a while turns into much longer. Catching up with the characters another 12 years later, Nora is a playwright in New York, living with her husband Arthur, a writer. They married so she could get a green card, but now their love is real, and affecting. But Hae Sung, after all these years, is finally coming to visit in New York. Nora downplays it, but Arthur is understandably a little jealous, a little worried, but also an exceedingly good sport about the whole thing
Hae Sung is nervous. He and his girlfriend have ended a serious relationship. What does he want out of this meeting? Nora insists to Arthur it’s just a reunion of old friends. Arthur isn’t so sure. Of course it’s many things. Song stages the initial reunion beautifully, with Hae Sung sweating over how he looks. Nora is more confident — after all, this is her city, her home turf. Hae Sung is in a strange land pursuing an old dream: her
Lee and Yoo are electric together, conveying an excess of feelings both unspoken and not fully understood through their graceful exchange of looks and dialogue. The two implicitly understand the feelings they see in each other’s eyes, but is it a feeling of love? Or regret for already knowing that the opportunity has long passed? As well as a love story, this is also an immigrant story, and the connection Nora has with Hae Sung as a link back to her home country is not insignificant
Caught between the two is Arthur, in a fantastic, apprehensive performance from Magaro. He understands his ostensible role in this story as the white husband coming between two long-lost Korean lovers, but a dramatic love triangle this is not. The dynamics between the trio are uneasy but cordial, each man faintly pained by the existence of the other, and Nora fraught in considering how each of them fits into her life. It’s a tricky dynamic expertly explored through Song’s delicate relaying of events. She has a remarkably deft touch behind the camera and tells this story with tactful specificity. It’s fun to consider the curiously diligent commitment to period detail during the 2010 era of the story, which is partially defined by outdated iPhone and MacBook interfaces and shoddy video calls preceded by the iconic Skype ringtone, until you realize that these are the types of specificities that can come to define your understanding of a relationship with someone. The most insignificant particulars grow to bear great meaning, and in turn, the quietest moments of the film can instantly become the most emotionally calamitous
Song has a tendency to accentuate the space between Nora and Hae Sung. As the camera drifts between the two, the separation between them seems at once unremarkable and unbearably infinite, a gap that is impossible to close despite their close proximity. It’s a visual that strikes a painful, necessary chord: Some rifts are impossible to mend, but maybe it’s worth reconciling with their indelible nature. Past Lives is beautiful in all the ways it does just that.
It is simply a great performance from all three actors. And Past Lives is a great movie, a surefire Oscar contender. One that you shouldn’t miss