At the start, Nora (then named Seung-ah) and Hae Sung are handholding 12-year-olds on a date accompanied by their mothers. They adore each other’s company, but then Nora’s family decide to emigrate to Canada. The farewell is limp and confused.
Twelve years later, Nora is a New York playwright. She looks up Hae Sung on Facebook and decides to Skype him, their stares travelling thousands of miles in blurry 2-D. After a long period of Zoom calls during lockdown, it’s hard to refuse the modern intimacy of video-calling in these moments. Another 12 years pass before they meet in real life, alongside Nora’s beautifully empathetic husband Arthur (John Magaro).
Left to right: Teo Soo as Hae Sung, Greta Lee as Nora, and John Magaro as Arthur. Photo: A24
Song declines to fall for melodrama. She even mocks any operatic consideration during a poignant dialogue between Nora and Arthur. In bed, these two writers discuss this extramarital relationship that’s difficult to define and he describes a melodramatic version of himself as ‘the evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny’. Life with all its branches is hard to navigate in drama, even detrimental at times. But Song never lets life act as an intrusion.
Past Lives is partly autobiographical, growing from an experience in a bar when Song translated between her American husband and a former Korean flame – a picture that opens the film. Song finds the poetry in the real, in the gravity of tangible feelings, in the heartbreak that can’t align with what might have been. And yet, she also unravels the fantastical concept of ‘In-Yun’: the fate between two people constructed from infinite connections across many previous lives.
Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner balances these seemingly disparate elements of the real and the magical in perfect harmony, discovering such beauty in ordinary circumstances. Song’s delicate direction and the tender performances from Lee and Yoo also bring that contradiction to life. They appear like normal people, but the looks between them and the numbness of their gaits when approaching one another feel preternatural.
There are times when you wonder: what possible good can come from Nora and Hae Sung meeting each other again? Song retreats from poking too much into their respective histories and careers, with Nora’s life as a playwright and Hae Song’s as an engineer being almost coincidental details. And so, this unshakeable desire – sustained over 24 years – is difficult to evaluate, especially since Hae Sung seems weirdly fixated on the 12-year-old Seung-ah instead of the grown-up Nora.
But more than the romance, the film is about how we evolve and how we define ourselves. Like the superior Return to Seoul and the inferior Joy Ride, Past Lives deals with identity fragmented through emigration but with a softer, gentler heart – warming the soul, but leaving scars behind.
Past Lives will be in UK cinemas on Thursday 7 September.
|What||Past Lives review|
07 Sep 23 – 07 Sep 24, IN CINEMAS
|Price||£determined by cinemas|
|Website||Click here for more information|