Cinema Review: Past Lives

Posted 10 months ago in Cinema Reviews


Cliches are big hurdles for the screenwriter. Reality often conforms to them. So Celine Song’s piercingly moving debut is something of a coup: it sidesteps cliche by sticking steadfastly to the truth, forgoing melodrama, and being the more emotionally resonant for it.

It starts with a cold opening: a Korean man (Yoo) and a Korean woman (Lee) are engrossed in each other while a third person, an American man, looks on despondently. An unseen couple speculates on what the nature of this trio could be.

We then rewind to the origins of these Koreans, Hae Sung and Na Young, as competitive classmates who walk home together every day. Their dialogue betrays no precocious insights, as it would in a Hollywood film – they’re just kids with a simple bond. However, Na Young’s family is about to emigrate to Toronto. During their sad parting, they are mute, too young to articulate their feelings.

Twelve years later, on a whim, Na Young (now Nora), an aspiring playwright, finds Hae Sung on Facebook, leading to a rekindling. They unconsciously ease into a de facto long-distance relationship via Skype, with relatable freezing and lagging.

But this returning magnetism is inopportune for Nora; Skype makes Hae Sung too close yet too far. She puts their calls on hiatus; she wants to give New York her all. There’s nothing more dramatic than that – no plot contrivances to ratchet up the tension, just life’s vicissitudes.

Nora then meets someone while on a writer’s retreat. When we see Arthur approach, a lifetime of romantic movie tropes primes us to dislike him. But glorious misdirection is at play.

That Arthur ends up being supremely likeable, his perspective in this predicament fully explored, is the film’s greatest asset. You care for him as much as the two principal players. While he’s respectful of their history, he’s understandably threatened by it, feeling there’s a part of Nora’s Korean heritage he’ll never grasp.

We eventually circle back to the cold open, with the pair talking in the presence of a third party, like at the end of Brief Encounter. But rather than being a drain on the Koreans’ intimacy, Arthur aids them in seeing this thing through.

A less navel-gazing version of Linklater’s Before trilogy, this decades-spanning narrative pinpoints the wrenching allure of the road not taken. However, it doesn’t platitudinously see that road as destiny forsaken.

Words: Rory Kiberd 

Past Lives

Director: Celine Song

Talent: Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro

Release Date: September 8


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