If you are looking for a sweeping, over-the-top romantic movie, this is not for you. Likewise, if you are looking for a predictable, jovial rom-com, again, this film is not for you. But if you are open to a quiet, intelligent, pitch-perfect romantic drama, then run, do not walk to see “Past Lives” by new director, Celine Song. This unconventional love story starts 24 years ago when then twelve-year-olds Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) spark a friendship and puppy love while at school in Seoul, South Korea. Not long after Nora admits her crush on Hae Sung to her mother, she informs him that she and her family will be immigrating to Canada. His sadness at the news is palpable, and any future prospects he had for them are seemingly lost to her future abroad. But fate steps in when twelve years later as post-graduate students embarking on their careers, the two reconnect, via online.
Their initial brief Facebook messaging spark an interest to truly get to know their now adult selves, leading to frequent Skype (pre-Zoom) video conversations. Since by then, Nora is living as an aspiring playwright in New York and Have Sung a student/intern still in Korea, they have to navigate their video meetups across major time zone differences. Although no particular romance or love is declared through these calls, a strong bond of friendship is secured and they both clearly relish these moments together. So much so that the career driven Nora realizes that since they would not be able to connect in-person anytime soon because of their schedules, she questions the practicality of maintaining a long distance romance of sorts. She begins to see it as more of a distraction from her goals than emotionally fulfilling. To both their anguish, she puts their connection on indefinite pause.
The love story becomes a love triangle of sorts when Nora and Hae Sung are in their mid-thirties, still living on different continents and have not been in contact since that last call about ten years earlier. Hae Sung who is grappling with a recent break up from his fiancé and a lackluster job in his field, decides to navigate his old feelings for Nora by means of a trip to New York. She tries to explain her friend’s pending visit to Arthur, her Jewish-American husband of several years (John Magaro). While she assumes the trip is purely coincidental, her husband suspects otherwise of Hae Sung. Being the open minded and supportive husband, he encourages their reconnection, declaring an aversion to being thought of as “the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny.”
From a writing perspective and cinematically, everything and every scene leading up to their 20 plus-year reunion has been wholly engaging and fulfilling. This includes the childhood sweetheart scenes in Korea, the family’s immigration to Canada, Nora’s first encounter with her now husband when they met at a writers’ retreat soon after she cut communication with Hae Sung, and most notably the sequence depicting Hae Sung and Nora’s reconnection, via Skype. This particular sequence is lengthy but never feels too long or labored. It is pivotal to both characters’ sense of place, identity, culture and development. It is a window into their personalities, for each other and the audience. Here one gets a true sense of Nora’s confident, creative, ambitious, yet fun personality, and Hae Sung as an undeniably shy, reserved and tentative old soul. To be sure, this would be a tricky sequence for the most seasoned of directors, but wildly impressive for Song in her directorial debut in collaboration with her editor, Keith Fraase.
All those scenes anticipate their in-real-life connection. It is here they meet up at the intersection of the past and present while confronting their futures. All those “what if” questions get extracted from their hearts and minds and are laid out before each other. What if you/Nora had stayed or moved back to South Korea? What if we had gotten together twelve years earlier and maintained a relationship? What if you didn’t need a green card and married Arthur? What if we had gotten married and had children? Not only are Hae Sung and Nora thinking and asking the questions, but Arthur too ponders his place in Nora’s life and culture. Speaking of which, if those thoughts of love, love loss and one’s past and present life weren’t enough to explore, there is an additional theme of culture and history that adds an incredible layer of interest to the story. After so many years in North America, Nora is perplexed by her lack of “Korean-ness” by comparison to her childhood friend. This a great example of double consciousness as coined by W.E.B Dubois and often attributed to Black people in America and immigrants as well.
"Past Lives" is a full and layered film posing as minimal. For that, coupled with other noteworthy elements, like keen and rich photography, and great acting- most notably by Greta Lee in her first leading role- it is quite simply, one of this year’s best films. It is everything a small, independent film should be and what any new director should aspire for. It is poignant without being sappy; authentic but not raw; it is complex, yet accessible and relatable. “Past Lives” is breathtaking, leaving you speechless in the most wonderful way.