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REVIEW – “Past Lives”: Romantic Character Study Speaks to Real Life

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(L-R) Greta Lee, Teo Yoo Credit: Jon Pack

NOTE: Film viewed as Opening Night selection at 2023 Seattle International Film Festival 

We’re privy to thoughtful conversations often in life. Less often, those chats questioning what could’ve been. And even less, the regrets in not taking a life changing leap. Be it a career decision, or more fittingly, a relationship choice. We yearn for better in life, and the best we can do in love. It often takes a moment of reconnection to remind a person how lucky they were to find their definition of “steady,” before reflecting on what the word meant before, with someone else. Writer/director Celine Song makes a cautious, melancholic, hopeful effort breaking down the stigma of revisiting old memories and older flames in Past Lives. But she tackles the subject distinctly against other sanguine romance tales. By sharply honing in on the present day, always moving forward and rarely flashing back, the progression of how one escapes that fear and recompense feels incredibly wholesome and organic. 

However, yes, a film about summing up one’s love life must start in the distant past. And it’s an innocent sort of past, in late 90s South Korea. As a middle schooler, Nora (Greta Lee) had a crush on fellow student Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), the pair building a lasting friendship. Before they could commit to a meaningful relationship, Nora and her family emigrate to Canada for better job prospects. Fast forward about 12 years, Nora is on her own in New York, a post-grad playwright who lives for her work, bumping into Hae Sung on social media, and striking a regular online conversation with him. The guy had stayed home, serving in the military, and finding new romances with nothing sticking.  

Even then, the pair grow apart, unable still to declare their prior fondness based on the lengthy distance in between. Another 12 years go by, suddenly it’s after the pandemic. Nora’s married to Arthur (a spry John Magaro), and they receive word Hae Sung is visiting the Big Apple for a few days. The husband sees no issue in his spouse rebuffing an old flame, recanting a particular will they/won’t they ideal. Will the two long separated friends achieve closure for what neither had the bravery to say all those years ago, or will they lose their window? Will there be that same friendly spark after such a long time? 

Song poses these questions, among what feels like a million clouding these two figures’ minds. One’s a shy introvert who can take on a thrill but will settle for adventure around his own backyard. The other’s a free spirit open to a welcome challenge and a spot of worldly travel, aware her fear of conflict often disrupts her creativity and ambition. Both see something unique in the other person, the catching of an eye that plays a catalyst to a growth in their bond, truly making up for lost time while wandering around a city they’ve either never explored or barely scratched the surface of. 

Manhattan itself serves as an accurate analogy for that previously missed opportunity, and many others in their lives. Nora and Hae Sung do not overlook anything in their long conversations and touristy meandering, piecing together hidden missteps, reviving painful hesitation, and making sense of multiple why’s. Why couldn’t this interaction have prioritized itself in a more formative time, why could neither visit the other sooner, nor why would their personality types prevent them from confessing their truest feelings? The latter is said the least, but shown the most by mere body language, simple eye glances that can scream restraint, but softly sing joie de vivre as they enjoy newfound closeness, but anxiety in addressing their lingering distance. 

If nothing else, Song is brutally honest in sharing the ins and outs of a near miss, never missing the mark in her wake. In fact, her sharpness only builds with time. By the film’s tearful finale, Both Lee and Yoo are following along with every word, footstep, or expressive reaction. And their chemistry matches that daring, solemn energy at every checkpoint. Whenever Magaro enters and leaves the picture, it’s with passive support, no hindrance or misbelief. Given the director’s experience in theater and television before going to the big screen, it’s no surprise her idea of storytelling defies a typical cinematic range when even the simplest of movements hit the bullseye,.  

Nothing is ever exaggerated like if this were a comedy or pantomime, nor precise like ballet dancing. It’s all choreographed not to mimic or emulate real behavior, but to compliment it. Even the camera work falls in line with Song’s sense of flow, as DP Shabier Kirchner (Skate Kitchen) pivots his apparatus in proximity with the actors, emphasizing small gestures and wide vistas in a compact, not constrictive frame. Like living postcards with historic realism, handled visually as much as aurally in Christopher Bear and Daniel Rossen’s delicate, halcyon musical score. 

The way Nora and Hae Sung reunite seems like it could happen in any romance film or novel, finding themselves again after a figurative eternity apart. Song negates the typical extreme of simply falling in love and running with that, and instead asks her leads to fall for the idea of bravely confronting their pasts and closing the book on a hidden truth. Within their adventure, that lens only turns fuzzier as the pair grow closer, yet still further apart, pulled away by their separate lives. They might not chase after each other, but a chance encounter like this would only leave the door open for more to their story, when reality must dictate a conclusion. In Past Lives, Song finds her closing page, after holding on to her opener for so long. Through her semi-autobiographical eyes, she’s crafted a very complete, fulfilling, bluntly tearful cinematic experience ranking as, if not merely among, the year’s best. The bar’s now been raised for love stories rooted in truth and conviction. After such a mesmerizing first-time feature, it might not be surpassed. (A; 4.5/5) 

Past Lives opens in Seattle (Thornton Place in Northgate, Meridian in Downtown and Bellevue’s Lincoln Square) June 16, followed by its wide release June 23; rated PG-13 for some strong language; 105 minutes.