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Past Lives

Directed by Celine Song (2023)

Reviewed by Z.K. Abraham

Past Lives is the first feature film by playwright-turned-writer/director Celine Song; a tender, vibrant film based on experiences from Song’s own life. 

The film spans twenty years as two childhood sweethearts, Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), are separated by Nora’s sudden emigration from Korea to Canada with her family at the age of twelve (and later, America). Nora and Hae Sung reunite twenty years later. Nora is a successful playwright now married to another writer, a white American named Arthur (John Magano). When Hae Sung visits NYC for two days, they spend this precious time together catching up, reminiscing, and regretting.

The core of Past Lives is the layered longing that exists between Nora and Hae Sung. This longing is referred to in the film as In-Yun, a Korean word for that ineffable tie between souls. Nora is loved and understood by her husband Arthur, yet she has this enduring, elemental love with Hae Sung that is wrapped up with lost childhood innocence and an imagined other self who stayed in Korea. Multiple truths and multiple selves are conveyed in delicate, balanced conversations between them. Naturalistic dialogue hints at years of unspoken emotion, much like the gentle, conversational flow of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. 

The three quiet yet potent central performances evoke jealousy, fear, love, and vulnerability. Magano, as Arthur, manages to express a loose and affectionate ease, which overlays an emerging sadness as he realizes parts of his wife’s inner world are inaccessible to him. Lee captures a bright confidence and a defended vulnerability. 

Song’s direction reveals the crucial differences in physical interaction across cultures. Yoo keeps his arms close to his sides and uses softer expressions, indicating a Korean reserve but also a boyish hesitancy. Nora and Arthur’s casual embraces contrast with the physical gap that remains between her and Hae Sung. As in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, the camera often focuses on two people in a frame, their restrained interactions containing a vast complexity of feeling.

Pavements and roads in Korea and then in New York City serve as metaphorical paths for the characters. As children, Nora and Hae Sung part along separate forks in the road. In NYC, their final, late-night walk together is down one shadowy sidewalk, ending in a pained embrace.

The cinematography by Small Axe’s Shabier Kirchner has a gentle, hovering quality. The camera often has a full view of the characters’ bodies, showing how they lean towards each other or hover just out of reach. Close-ups focus on character’s expressions during intimate moments of exchange. The camera is observing, steady, anticipating. Shot on 35mm film, the imagery feels tangible, crisp, and detailed. A colour palette in blues and browns reflects the wistful, melancholy tone of the film. When the palette switches to red, during the crucial bar scene when Nora and Hae Sung unfold and decipher their feelings for each other, we are aware of a shift in tone. They speak in soft, warm Korean, while Arthur sits uncomfortably close at the edge of the frame, excluded and unable to understand what they are saying. The present and past butt up against each other. There is a sense of late-night confession and disinhibition. The camera frame expands to include Arthur, then contracts to close him out. Ambient noise ebbs and flows away, increasing the sense of the precarious intimacy between Nora and Hae Sung in the bar; while this longing is finally verbalized in the car scene, in other scenes throughout the film, the unadorned soundtrack of rounded piano and melodious, indie electronica enhances the unspoken longing and confusion between all three characters.

Ultimately, Celine Song’s Past Lives is a compelling, focused, and complex film about our contradictory longings and the possibilities we leave behind when we grow into ourselves.