In a scene of Celine Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives, a Korean concept known as ‘inyeon’ is explained by Nora (Great Lee). Nora describes this concept as the layers and ties between two people over the course of their life, and the many past lives before this one. A single graze by a stranger walking down the street could be the first layer of thousands that accumulate into a truly undeniable love. A love that no matter what, can not be broken. An ‘inyeon’ that has grown strong over thousands of past lives.
Nora being her English chosen name, she was once only known as Na Young, an incredibly intelligent and studious Korean girl who immigrated to the United States with her parents and sister to begin a new life. However, Na Young must leave her childhood sweetheart and intellectual competitor, Hae Sung behind in Korea.
12 years pass and Nora is now a playwright living on her own in New York City, when a curiosity led, online stalking of her former Korean classmates from over a decade ago reveals a Facebook post from Hae Sung, who is still living in Korea while studying to be an engineer. A post that states only 3 months earlier, he was in search of Na Young. The two digitally connect and a wave of childhood memories and elated feelings come crashing back into their lives. For a year, the hours-long, time-zone mismatched Skype calls reconnect the two via long distance, but the inability to travel to each other due to work causes Nora to end the calls out of fear this is all they will ever have.
12 more years pass. Hae Sung has taken leave from work to travel to the United States for a week to visit Nora. Nora is now living with her husband, who she met while at a writers retreat not long after breaking off communication with Hae Sung. The two spend the week together as friends, but must confront the passionate feelings they have had for each other, and face love and destiny head on.
Past Lives is a beautiful film. Celine Song’s directorial debut, from her own screenplay, is one of those love stories that feels so genuine and authentic that it can only have come from such a deeply personal place. Song’s understanding of the human connection, and her ability to not just put that in writing, but bring it to life on the screen, is truly a work of art and should be in the conversation come awards season.
The conversations and dialogue in Past Lives brilliantly tells a story of the power of love, in its most innocent form, and at its most painful. Capturing that overly joyous feeling of a first love, and the chuckle-worthy awkwardness that can come with that, lays a strong and engaging foundation for the growing relationship between Nora and Hae Sung. And as the film goes on, even with its drastic time jumps, the script manages to make the audience aware of how the relationship has changed in that time period. Whether it’s repressing true feelings, or an outburst of more accurate emotions, Song’s script perfectly and succinctly brings that to life through Nora and Hae Sung.
Song’s direction is also incredibly patient, and allows for the film to unravel at its own methodical pace. When Song decides to hold onto a shot for a little longer than normal, a changing facial expression in that shot can completely change the context of conversations, even entire scenes. Allowing the characters to naturally react and interact, rather than trying to rush through moments to keep the pace moving, works in adding to that authentic, human feeling. The intimacy in Song’s direction acts as a very personal look into Nora and Hae Sung’s relationship, and makes the audience feel like they are very much a part of this exploration of the undeniable. But, Song also uses very deliberate shots and camera movements that work wonderfully as callbacks throughout the film to the younger versions of Nora and Hae Sung, and enhance and heighten the emotions coming out of the screen.
A film like Past Lives falls apart if the chemistry between Nora and Hae Sung doesn’t work. That chemistry was never in doubt from the first Skype call between Greta Lee (Nora) and Teo Yoo (Hae Sung), who both play their respective characters with such sincerity. Lee is a true standout as she navigates the notions of missing the home she grew up in, adapting to a whole new world, and the notion of how her ability to love and who she loves can evolve and change throughout her life. Nora is steadfast and sure, there’s no doubt about it, but Lee’s performance also displays the vulnerability inside of Nora that ultimately is still just a human trying to understand her feelings.
Yoo is a charming presence as Hae Sung, who’s relentless urge to explore what he believes is his ‘in yuen’ with Nora never once feels overdone, unnecessary or creepy. Hae Sung’s determination makes the love feel real, but there is a duality and conflict to his performance, and a conflict that Song’s screenplay explores, as to whether it’s even appropriate to explore that love despite Nora being married already, and whether their ‘in yeun’ is stronger than that of Nora and her husbands.
The idea of love and destiny being synonymous isn’t foreign territory for the romance genre, but where romantic dramas (or comedies for that matter) would rely on stupendously grand gestures to show off love, Past Lives is a patient, poignant and authentic reminder about the human intricacies of love. Imagine the equally heartbreaking and beautiful emotions of the “in another life…” scene from Everything Everywhere All At Once, and take the authenticity of Richard Linklater’s Before series, and that is similar to where Past Lives lies, and it’s phenomenal.
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