Na Young (Greta Lee) is twelve when she and her family leave Korea for America. She has to leave not only her childhood crush behind, but also her whole life and identity. She has to learn a new language, and change her name.
Twelve years later, Na Young, now Nora Moon, is growing as a screenwriter and seems fully settled and happy in her American life when Hae Sung (Teo Yoo), her childhood friend, manages to get in contact with her again.
Another twelve years after that, when Hae Sung comes to New York to visit her, Nora appears happily married and fully established. Yet, everything indicates that the two of them never stopped thinking about each other.
Celine Song introduces her main protagonists to us when they are all grown up, and then switches to a flashback set 24 years earlier, instantly hooking us on their storylines and leaving us full of questions.
The whole film has such a warmth and coziness to it that it is really easy to feel empathetic towards all the characters and understand their point of view.
We understand the weird feeling that Nora goes through when she has to re-acquaint herself with writing Korean when just a few years earlier she was just learning English. It is also easy to feel the pain that Hae Sung expresses when meeting Arthur (John Magaro), Nora’s husband.
Remember that relationship that made you seek closure so bad but you never got it? Past Lives will make you feel like you’ll never get it, ever. But with a fairytale like that, long-lost lovers who had to part before they could even begin to know each other, how could you get closure? So many questions remain and they echo deeply within the audience.
In the meantime, nothing really happens in the hour and three-quarters we spend with Nora, Hae Sung and Arthur. And it is also what makes it easy to relate to them and feel for them. They’re normal people, very much like us, with a nice life, but without losing-your-whole-family type of tragedies or saving-the-world-great accomplishments.
With the impressive chemistry between the actors and a relatable theme, it is easy to feel for all of them. Easy to get anxious with Arthur at the idea of meeting your wife’s childhood crush. Easy to idealise and romanticise the person you have not seen in so long like Hae Sung.
Maybe it is because the film is semi-autobiographical, however, I would give the film and its writer/director more credit than that.
Aside from its great storytelling and really immersing acting, Past Lives has a very discreet yet powerful soundtrack. Not the kind you will listen to imagining yourself fighting for survival with Matthew McConaughey or running away to the far side of the world with Emile Hirsch but the kind that really adds to the feeling of warmness and familiarity of the film.
And while the cinematography is truly beautiful and does remind us of the atmosphere of other A24 movies, it does so without the eerie-ness present in some of them.
All in all, Celine Song’s feature directorial debut does not look like one. It feels like every detail has been thought of.
Though not a lot happens in Past Lives, the beautiful cinematography and the themes it tackles are sure to leave a lot of us deep in our thoughts and with maybe even a few tears at the corner of our eyes.