Written and Directed by Celine Song | 105 min | ▲▲▲▲▲ | Amazon Prime
Celine Song is a Canadian-Korean playwright, this is her debut feature film. It’s shockingly mature for a first timer, suggesting not only that writing for the stage has provided chops in her cinematic storytelling, but that she’s got a terrific eye for visual detail, too.
Wikipedia tells me she immigrated to Canada when she was 12 and now lives in New York, very much like her lead character. I wondered glancingly how much more of this is autobiographical, but in the end it doesn’t matter. There’s a universality about what Past Lives is talking about — migration, love, commitment, identity, destiny, and choice — that makes the film easily one of the year’s best movies, and I say that confidently in early July.
When Na Young and Hae Sung were children, they lived in Seoul. They were classmates and more — as close to being girlfriend and boyfriend as you can get at the age of 12. But Na Young’s parents were planning to immigrate to Canada, and Na Young is keen to go, too. She dreams of fame as a writer, and says Koreans “don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature.”
Twelve years later, Na Young (Greta Lee) now goes by Nora, living in New York pursuing her writing. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) spent time in the Korean military service, and wants to be an engineer. Online he reaches out to Na Young and eventually they do meet, virtually. They talk and rekindle their friendship, but nothing much comes of it. Life gets in the way.
We flash forward again, another dozen years. Nora still lives in New York, now married to another writer, Arthur (John Magaro). Hae Sung has finally decided to visit New York and meet Nora in person.
The film is really about what happens then.
At first I wasn’t entirely sure it was working. Song leans on her soundtrack and a leisurely pace to create a tone, which seems early on maybe a little too sweet. Her story as described is deceptively simple, but the detail and character provided in those opening acts are entirely necessary for a full accounting of the complexity, longing, and emotional stakes in the conversations to come.
This is a film of intimacies. As its conclusion threatens you pray it’ll stick the landing, that the end will arrive with the kind of grace with which it’s been building, and, thankfully, it absolutely does. It’s the furthest thing from melodrama, just people sharing their vulnerable selves in the hope of connection and better understanding. It’s rare that I’ve seen something that feels as broadly relatable on such a tiny scale — three people redefining their relationship against the immensity of their lives over a couple of days in New York City.
It’s been awhile since I’ve really seen the Big Apple shine onscreen like it does here. It’s not a travelogue, but elements of the film reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, which did something similar for characters adrift in Tokyo. The film also evokes The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind directly — the Michel Gondry picture is discussed by characters on screen, and we see a clip of Kate Winslet’s Clementine brushing her teeth. Later, Nora’s brushing her teeth. This isn’t accidental.
Teo Yoo and John Magaro both do solid work in their roles, but this is Greta Lee’s film. Song’s written a character who is defined by her ambition to make something of herself — Lee delivers that slight abrasion while also allowing us to fall in love with her, maybe for the same reason Hae Sung and Arthur do.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning how important the immigrant experience is to this film. It defines Nora’s identity and why she feels separate from the person Hae Sung used to know. I expect that portion of the film’s story will resonate with anyone who’s picked up and left somewhere for a new life and had to reimagine who they are.