Film Review: Past Lives


Childhood friends Na-Young (Greta Lee) and Hae-Sung’s (Yoo Teo) young lives are irrevocably changed when Na-Young’s family emigrate from South Korea to Canada, until the pair reconnect twelve years later. Past Lives, a film about love, friendship and fate, is an astonishing debut from South Korean-Canadian director Celine Song, and a devastatingly romantic one at that.

What if. What if our childhood friend hadn’t moved away that year? What if we’d grown up in a different city? What if the partner we’d met at the other end of a shared dinner table had been someone else that night, would we still have ended up with them? Life has a way of posing these questions, drawing as the years pass increasingly maddening patterns on the wallpapers of our lives. As life goes on, it becomes harder to not to ask where it might have taken us, or who it might have taken us to, if this or that wind had blown differently; in Past Lives, writer-director Celine Song posits a deeply moving, layered answer to that question.

The film opens from the perspective of a group of observers people-watching two men and a woman sat a bar. Out of frame and somewhat obnoxiously, they speculate who may be a couple and who is the third wheel, wondering if perhaps the white guy – who stares into the middle distance while the other two are in deep conversation – is the Asian “couple’s” tour guide. In fact, the three know each other intimately; and when the narrative climactically returns to this encounter, this fated conversation will prove revelatory. Importantly, the framing in this prologue also establishes us as the observers, forever looking in at Na-Young and Hae-Sung’s lives.

Twelve years after Na-Young emigrates – now going by Nora – she is living in New York as a playwright. Hae-Sung, living in Seoul, has tracked her down through Facebook and the pair reconnect, reestablishing their long-dormant friendship via Skype. In this middle section, a romantic tension pulls at both of them, while director Song teases out the ways that time and space have kept and continue to keep them separate; a wonderful drone shot tracking right during the daytime in one city is cut and reversed to track left at night in the other. Indeed, Song’s represents her cityscapes as places that frame and define us in time as well as space, subtly evoking this sense through visuals that privilege her characters one moment and then dwarf them by concrete structures the next, while the film’s quiet jazzy score elicits movement and feeling.

Meanwhile, Hae-Sung’s request to Nora that he still call her by her Korean name, implies that his love for her is rooted in a past and place in which she no longer resides. And yet, despite the suggestions throughout that Hae-Sung is the pursuer, Nora remains caught on the thread that binds her to Hae-Sung and her past life. Skipping forward another twelve years, and both their lives have moved on. Nora tells another character of In-Yun, a Korean belief that people who have a connection in this life have met in past lives; those who marry must have eight thousand layers of In-Yun.

Part of what makes Past Lives such a special film is its refusal, at every opportunity, to take the shallower, more immediately satisfying choice: to offer cheap sentiment in favour of romantic catharsis. One does not wish to spoil things, but suffice to say Song’s humane writing serves all her characters in ways that lesser films might have offered them up as two-dimensional sops. When we finally return to the bar it is for a deeply satisfying conclusion to the three figures’ journey: the film’s final moments merely confirming that Past Lives is simply an exquisite piece of work and the most romantic film of the year.

Christopher Machell