Celine Song’s gorgeous, intensely bittersweet romance ruminates on the lives and loves of two childhood friends fleetingly reunited after decades apart – a remarkable debut feature that was the talk of Sundance.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2023
Shimmering with melancholic longing, Past Lives is a love story of self as much as one of human connection. It’s a deeply moving tale of past and future desires, romantic or otherwise, with great affection for its syncopated characters.
Inseparable classmates in late 90s Seoul, Nayoung and Hae Sung are already quite sure of their feelings for one another. But when Nayoung’s family abruptly emigrates to America, 12 years pass before Hae Sung, fresh off mandatory military service, is able to track down Nayoung via Facebook, who now goes by Nora and is studying playwriting in New York. Skype dates trigger old memories and new sensations – filled with such tender curiosity, their long-distance interactions make us instantly forget the modern tedium of video calls – only for Nora to cut ties in order to focus on her artistic dreams.
It’s another 12 years until Hae Sung books a flight to see Nora. The days spent walking and talking around Manhattan recall the excitement of Before Sunrise’s iconic meet cute, except with a depth of feeling that’s more pensive and sensitive to the transience of the moment.
A playwright herself, writer-director Song’s screenplay is a marvel of intuition in the way it holds emotional breathing space between its simple yet expressive passages of dialogue. These exchanges become transfixing through the soulful chemistry and physical restraint of co-stars Greta Lee and Tae Yoo; revealing as conversations navigating diasporic identity; or elusive for Arthur (John Magaro), a pivotal third character whose understanding of their shared language and history arrives through surprising empathy. It would be enough for any first feature to finesse the joys of cinematic romance as deftly as Past Lives does; an even rarer achievement to ground its ecstasies in fragile, complex and guarded emotion.
Although both its title and characters refer to “In Yun” – a Korean concept of fated connection between two people in a past life – Song’s film gently eschews the true love clichés of destiny and circumstance, and with it any comparisons to K-melodrama. Instead, there’s a softness to its slice-of-life exploration of migration and culture, everyday resentment and sorrow (or “Han”, another Korean concept), aspiration and expectation, and most telling of all, individuality and choice. Its final scenes, pitch-perfect in their aching certainty, will have you gasping for air – and tissues, too. – Tim Wong