Past Lives: The feeling of being connected.

Past Lives is the directorial debut of Korean-Canadian writer Celine Song that follows an autobiographical story of love, fate and how our life choices can take us away from what we perceive as a more dramatic destiny. The film follows Nora Moon and Hae Sung, two young people who grow up together in South Korea but its only when Nora learns that her family will be immigrating to Canada that they fully realize what they mean to each other. Twenty years later, they are reunited in New York as they confront the connection that has drawn them to each other and to discover if that connection is a destined romantic love affair.

Past Lives creates a new work of fiction out of a real-life situation from Song’s life. Like Nora, she had a reunion with her own elementary school “sweetheart” from Korea and, while she noted there was nothing explicitly romantic about her real life encounter, she and her husband recognized that he was coming to visit her because he had to find out what his feelings for her meant. It was when Song found herself sitting between both her husband and her childhood crush that she realized the uniqueness and the almost otherworldly feeling of being a translator for the men but trying to reconcile what they meant to her.

The opening scene puts the audience in Song’s position as we too wonder what these people are to each other. They watch Nora seated between her husband Arthur and childhood crush, Hae Sung, at a warmly lit bar, before cutting back to Nora’s childhood in Korea. From there, we learn there is certainly more to their relationship and Song conveys his very efficiently. Song’s most impressive feat is that she continues to help us perceive the strong emotional feelings that both Nora and the men have for one another when they are together, without exhaustive exposition or spectacular dramatic moments. Rather, Song is able communicate the love and connection that Nora has with these men and even the connection that they have with each other because of their love for Nora. This feeling is felt viscerally by the audience, an impressive achievement for any director, especially one who’s making their debut film.

Past Lives creates an engaging and moving film that’s full of lush yet simple cinematography. Through long, simple wide shots the camera’s patient gaze catches these people at their most vulnerable and in their most engaging–yet awkward–conversations. They frame the intimacy of these characters very well with longing stares and long moments where the characters avoid eye contact. These are the moments when you can take in the whole scene, the place they are in and see how Song has constructed these frames as spaces where, despite its openness, has us leaning in to see if these characters will make a leap of passion and be bold about their feelings.

All of this is accompanied by well-timed sound design, subtle and almost silent in these long moments but active and alive to help contrast these long moments with the large jumps through time that the story takes and the bustling city that it takes place in. Composed by Christopher Bear & Daniel Rossen, the original score also reflects the sense of blooming intimacy that cannot be seen through physical action or through spoken word. Its calm and reflective sounds are orchestrated by gentle piano melodies that wash over us as we take in the most romantic and solemnly sad moments.

The leads all bring their A-game to the film and the actors follow Song’s confident direction very well. They communicate so much in their glances, whether it’s in a smile or more stilted facial expressions. John Magaro stands out in his smaller role as the self-aware writer and husband to Nora who realizes how much more romantic Nora and Hae Sung’s story seems. He’s a uniquely made character who rejects the often toxic and jealous masculinity that might appear in a typical American love triangle. Instead, he skillfully conveys a man who respects how much Hae Sung means to her and how rare this moment that they have together is. His presence brings out what were some much needed moments of comedic relief in a film that could have used more levity. Without Magaro’s skilled work, the story could simply be a subdued romantic comedy with a disappointing ending but his presence is what creates a bitter-sweet conclusion.

The film’s style really strives for naturalism. At times, it’s an anti-drama, a hang-out film where your characters need to feel like authentic humans. There is authenticity all over this film but it can be spotty at some moments of dialogue, making some of the more realistic and grand dramatic moments less impactful.

Past Lives can pull off a story that hinges on the very familiar and oftentimes melodramatic set up of a love triangle, but Song goes past that to reveal the more subtle psychological struggle that Nora goes through in trying to reconcile with what could have been. Her personal experience as an immigrant who moved during her developing years creates a distinct memory for both her and Hae Sung whose budding (but minor) elementary school romance was cut off. The two seem to be continually connected by Nora’s sudden goodbye and those small moments of childhood closeness still remain engraved in both the minds of these characters and the audience.

Personally, while I see all these feelings painted in every scene, I didn’t always feel them. As a young adult just out of first year of university, I don’t feel I’ve lived through making these kinds of choices. In this film’s three-act structure where the characters are at different stages of life, I’ve only made it between the first and the second one. I haven’t even made it to where I’m actively pursuing a career or a goal in a specific field. While it’s more subtle, I do think Song wants this film to serve as a comfort for all the big decisions that we don’t make when it comes to our lives and relationship.

At the end of the day, it’s ok and life goes on.

Past Lives is available in theatres on June 9th, 2023.

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