I should preface this review by saying that I am a huge sucker for stories that involve elements of melancholy or regret, or that meditate on the passage of time and what might have been. If you weave any mixture of these into your narrative, you’ve already got me. I am primed and ready to be engaged and—unless you really fumble the bag—emotionally ravaged. Equally precious to me are original movies for adults that dig deep into the human condition and aren’t afraid to leave things ambiguous, unresolved.
Past Lives is very much all of these things. Undoubtedly one of the best films of the year so far, and—incredibly—the feature debut from its writer-director, playwright Celine Song, it is a movie that carries the weight of years upon its shoulders, of ineffable longing and the possibility of cosmic alignment, but it does so with a cinematic spring in its step, even as it runs the full gamut of human emotion from the unbridled joy of re-connection to the sorrow of leaving.
It begins, like so many great stories do, at a bar, as we watch three thirty-somethings deep in conversation, though we can’t hear what they are saying. Instead, we are privy to the conversation behind the camera, as we realise we are taking on the voyeuristic POV of a pair from across the bar who are speculating on the nature of the relationships among the trio. We can’t help but do the same; our minds are aflutter as the three talk, picking up on expressions and body language cues, frantically trying to decipher who these people are to each other.
In a neat parallel, we will find out that the narrative that follows this opening mostly involves those people spending their lives trying to decipher exactly the same thing. Immediately after this scene we go back twenty-four years to Korea and we meet Na Young (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), two classmates whose close friendship is showing the first signs of developing into a youthful romance. Unfortunately, Na Young’s family soon leaves Korea and emigrates to Toronto, sundering the pair’s connection and sending them down two very different, distant paths. The two lose all contact. Years later, Na Young, now going by Nora, moves to New York City, and eventually marries Arthur (John Magaro).
The details of what happens in the intervening decades that leads us from a severed childhood connection to the pair sat at a New York bar together with Nora’s husband is something that I think is best left for the audience to find out for themselves, but the Korean word in-yeon—describing the Buddhist belief of a lifetimes-spanning spiritual connection between two souls—is invoked a number of times over the years. In its exploration of love, family, and fate, Past Lives doesn’t resort to easy answers or cliché at any point—commenting on this through Arthur, who, after Hae Sung re-enters his wife’s life, jokes that in the typical version of their story he would be the ‘evil white American husband standing in the way of destiny’. This is not that kind of story.
At the risk of repeating myself, it really is remarkable that this is Cecile Song’s first film. The storytelling here being so assured and the characterisation so rich makes sense considering her background in theatre, but Past Lives is anything but a ‘filmed play’. This is a gorgeous movie, photographed wonderfully by Shabier Kirchner (Small Axe) and replete with deep contrasts and evocative hues. Controlled, purposeful camerawork frames the action, subtly but with impact, with characters often shot through natural frames in the environment, or silhouetted or reflected as if they were ghosts in not just someone else’s story, but their own too—echoes of a past that was maybe destined to have gone down a certain path but accidentally took a wrong turn and got lost. There are some truly lovely compositions in Past Lives, all without coming off as showy or extraneous.
The true stars here, however, are the three human beings at the center of this story, and Lee, Yoo, and Magaro all do fantastic work. The writing and editing is such that it gives emotional beats the space to breathe, and the actors the chance to play out vast yet intimate stories of life and love in the nuances of their facial expressions. Glances, eye contact, things left unsaid. What a gift it must be, to be an actor presented with this kind of script, what a treat! A wistful soundtrack, heart-stirring without being overbearing, accompanies them throughout.
Famously, one of the reasons why the Mona Lisa is acclaimed as one of the greatest portraits of all time, is due to the expression on the subject’s face. It is ambiguous, unreadable, and perplexing, inspiring countless debate as to its meaning and provenance. There is a shot in Past Lives that reminded me of this, and that has stayed with me ever since the credits rolled. As we observe the trio of Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur in the bar, the camera ever so slowly pulls in, gradually isolating Nora in the frame. At the last moment, just before we leap back in time to her childhood, she turns her head slightly, her eyes finding the camera—and by extension the unnamed pair speculating about the trio, as well as the audience. As if to cue up the story, Nora smiles ever so slightly, a knowing look in her eye. For the life of me I haven’t been able to figure out the meaning behind this look, and that compels me no end.