"Past Lives" reunites two childhood friends in poignant moments
By Diane Carson
Robert Frost’s philosophical, 1915 poem “The Road Not Taken” invites consideration of life’s inevitable choices and of the auspicious appeal of each. This awareness, along with the impossibility of pursuing two very different realities, lies at the heart of writer/director Celine Song’s beautifully rendered “Past Lives,” an intimate, introspective consideration of two young adults, childhood friends who reconnect years later.
Beginning in Seoul, South Korea, Na Young, later known as Nora, and Hae Sung are young classmates. She comes in second to him on a math test and cries about it. Hae Sung shows the sensitivity that will define his character, and they part. For Nora’s artist mother announces they will emigrate to Toronto, stating, “If you leave something behind, you gain something too.” The remainder of this deeply moving story illustrates exactly that, a reality that resonates with everyone who reflects on life. Director Song renders this with profound impact devoid of sentimentality, lending its finale an even greater intensity.
A Canadian/American playwright of South Korean ancestry, Song shares her own experiences for her debut film. As related in press notes, she “found herself sitting at a New York bar sandwiched between two men from vastly different parts of her life,” her American husband and childhood Korean sweetheart. This first scene, to which the film will return, sets up the narrative: Nora and Hae’s childhood, twelve years later and another twelve years after that. Hae introduces the Buddhist idea of In-Yun, that encounters in past lives decisively determine the present.
As Nora, Greta Lee, gives a complex, nuanced performance that understates and fully reveals the depth of her emotions. As Nora’s husband Arthur, John Magaro, so memorable as Cookie in “First Cow,” strikes exactly the right balance between concern and support. As Hae Sung, Teo Yoo is quietly restrained, yet clearly yearning for the empathetic relationship he and Nora shared. These are two mature, loving men and an insightful woman who understands and accepts her divided self.
Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner composes for maximum effect, stepping back for reflective moments, moving in for close-ups of multifaceted reactions. Similarly, editor Keith Fraase holds on faces and locations, allowing scenes to build. In English and some Korean with English subtitles, “Past Lives” is a gem, universal and specific with past and present lives intertwined.