Friday, June 14, 2024

In “Past Lives,” the lavishly melancholic debut film from director Celine Song, there’s a moment where the protagonist’s husband, Arthur (John Magaro) shares an observation with her. She talks in her sleep, so he knows she dreams in Korean. Arthur tells her he’s learning Korean as a means to follow her wherever she goes, rather than enduring a life where she “dreams in a language” he doesn’t understand. This is one of the many soulful, bone-aching scenes in a film that serves as a reminder that life is determined by seeking our own agency and instincts.

Childhood friends Nora (Seung Ah Moon) and Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) are together constantly, tethered by the others’ orbital force. They lose touch when Nora emigrates with her family from South Korea. Song’s film establishes the notion that the relationships forged as children are as significant as those in adulthood – they all mean something, regardless of when they begin.

Now played by Greta Lee and Teo Yoo, Nora and Hae Sung will reconnect a little over a decade later, keeping in touch over long-distance Skype sessions. Their once-easy bond is tested by shoddy Internet, time zones and unpredictable social lives. He’s just completed the military service required of Korean men, while she’s moved to New York City, pursuing a career as a writer. They lose touch once again, reuniting another 12 years later for a week in which they confront their past, current and potential selves and the destiny that’s laid suggested paths for them to walk on.

It’s easy to get lost in the dreamy atmosphere of the film, and its sense of longing – for something we had but no longer possess – imbued by the technical expertise operating below the surface. The direction and editing tends to soft transitions, cutting from puddles and skylines and other elements that change with time, using those shots as a means to depict time’s finite disposition without spelling it out. The cinematography by Shabier Kirchner (of Steve McQueen’s 2020 “Small Axe” anthology series) works well with Song’s patient framing, capturing how we see people, be it through a window, in the distance or two figures at different stages in their lives walking up different pairs of stairs in tandem.

The ambient noise of cityscapes heightens the story of two people displaced fro, one another’s lives, contrasting the silence of Hae Sung’s world and Nora’s inability to escape motion. The score by Daniel Rossen and Christopher Bear (members of the alt-rock band Grizzly Bear) adds to the heartache.

But the performances anchor the film. All three actors are phenomenal. Lee, for those who know her best for her supporting comedy work, is a revelation, playing Nora with a sturdy confidence of self that works in opposition to the two male leads. Lee’s Nora lounges, taking up space in public settings as she leans back to take in Hae Sung. Even her wardrobe – loose fitting, flowing – represents this. Hae Sung is in a constant act of making himself smaller. Yoo’s broad frame hunches in on itself as he adapts to New York City, his face boyish despite the invisible weight settled on him.

Some of Yoo’s finest beats are in the little moments, such as when he accepts a hug from Nora a moment later than when she initiates. Magaro (of 2019’s “First Cow”) excels too as an empathic husband who fears he’s not enough. There’s a wounding moment when Magaro’s face contorts as Arthur sees Nora and Hae Sung stand together.

Song’s script excels too. “Past Lives” showcases the emotions that lie beneath the surface, capturing the idea of love being a reflection of youth. Is what we’re remembering the love of the person or the love of the feeling? These characters linger in the others’ minds, pillars of their youth and, in moments, projections of what could have been. In a scene that’s life-affirming in its guttingly beautiful delivery, Nora and Hae Sung’s friendship is reconciled through shared memories of their adolescence.

“I left her behind with you,” Nora tells Hae Sung after he’s noted that she had to leave because that’s who she is. She isn’t defined by the men in her life, but by her ambition, and that ambition meant she had to end up in New York City; by being there, she met Arthur. In contrast, Hae Sung is someone who stays. Song carries the contradictions throughout “Past Lives” and depicts them with overwhelming tenderness.

Nora often mentions “in-yun,” a Korean concept of destined relationships – merely brushing shoulders with a stranger in a crowd could mean that, in a past life, you two were lovers. What makes “Past Lives” such a feat of storytelling is the ability to make ordinary existences transformative. Song’s grace in the film is found through her empathic understanding of how even the briefest relationship can take up space in a person’s heart for decades.


Allyson Johnson is editor-in-chief of the entertainment website InBetweenDrafts.