One-liner: While familiar, this is a beautifully composed, gentle, haunting, nostalgic, powerful, tender and well-acted romance drama portrait.
It’s written in the stars. While trite and almost void of the sentimentality that originally carried it through its Romeo & Juliet paces, there’s something awe-inspiring about the idea of destiny being intertwined with love. Soulmates, serendipity, whatever you call it… one can’t help but be drawn into the notion of the fates seemingly pushing people together. The sensitive romance drama Past Lives explores the lofty concept of In-Yun, a Korean word often associated with a karmic connection between two people, speaking to the power of destiny and fate. While essentially a romantic film, writer-director Celine Song explores the concept through its platonic, familial and live-altering force in a remarkable directorial debut.
Song is in no rush to tell the story of Na Young and Hae Sung, deeply connected childhood friends whose relationship is interrupted when Na’s family emigrates from South Korea to Canada. Moving on to New York City with her parents, Na changes her named to Nora as she embarks on a career as a playwright as Hae Sung completes an engineering course and a stint of military service before taking up a job.
Spanning several decades, there’s no urgency to get to the final destination, content to simmer in the emotional current and turmoil of their bittersweet circumstances. Song immerses the audience in the giddiness and frustration of their situation as they test the bounds of their magnetic connection. Separated by their career ambitions and oceans apart, there’s an undeniable flicker and spark between the friends.
This energy is nurtured and enhanced by the potent co-lead chemistry between Greta Lee and Teo Yoo. Song’s visual storytelling catches us up to speed as the budding childhood sweethearts literal fork in the road finds them on opposite sides of the planet. A twenty year gap and their In-Yun finds them reconnecting via the proliferation of social media platforms in the wake of Facebook. Unaware of just how much they’ve become missing pieces in each other’s lives, the reunion is powerful… tipping them into what becomes an intense and almost complicated online relationship.
Past Lives hovers between the Richard Linklater classic, Before Sunrise, and the Nora Ephron romance comedy drama, You’ve Got Mail. The pacing, dialogue, bittersweet temperament, intense connection, tender romance, haunting vibration and organic feel of Linklater’s film is present in Song’s exploration. This gentle feel is mirrored to the point of being a possible inspiration or reference to Song who commands it just as readily. Leaning in the direction of Before Sunrise, the co-lead chemistry, role of technology and tension of platonic romance draws a few parallels with the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romcom, You’ve Got Mail.
“I believe third wheel implies there’s a second wheel?”
Lee and Yoo match the film’s tone in their thoughtful performances, bringing rich inner lives and an emotional depth to their characters. Their nuanced co-lead performances, are ably supported by John Magaro and integrate into Song’s haunting sense of longing. Invited to resonate with the highs and lows of their stories, Song beckons with nostalgia, daring viewers to recall and share in the heartache of unrequited love. Remaining just out-of-reach, there’s no spoon-feeding to Past Lives, delivering a mature modern romance for the ages.
Beyond the tender undertones of Past Lives, its beautifully shot to capture the wistful romantic energy at its core. Masterfully using visuals to add layers of meaning to the quieter moments, its a controlled yet subtle undertaking in keeping with A24’s legacy. John Carney’s music romance dramas have a similar emotional weight, expertly using music, complex love stories and spirited performances to tap into this element. Ironically not leaning on the music as heavily, Song still manages to coax a similar intensity and unearth complexity through her careful observations, rich insights and empathetic resonance.
Past Lives is a deliberately slow-moving romance drama, urging you to live in the moment with the characters. It has moments of levity to even out the heartache but retains its bittersweet symphony of life. Evoking powerful emotions in the lofty and tragic interludes, Past Lives serves as a fine exploration of lost love, identity and the power of memory. Journeying with Nora and Hae Sung in their respective cities, Song ushers in a subtle commentary on alienation, urban living and the roots of cultural identity. A detailed backdrop to the central romance, the kitchen sink realism is intricate in its simplicity and evocatively beautiful in its handling.
Song’s modern romance drama has a silky and timeless quality that should endure. A haunting examination of a friendship clouded by love and circumstance, it paints a poignant and stirring portrait of a relationship muddied by the concept of In-Yun. Sophisticated in its approach, Song is able to mine the multi-faceted romance, capturing unresolved emotion and the eternal conflict between heart and mind. Past Lives is refreshingly different in its tender and soulful deconstruction of a will-they-won’t-they romance. Steering clear of clichés and headlong into the powerful emotion of missed connections, this heartfelt and nostalgic film is bound to linger. A nuanced and masterful feature film debut for Song, it signals the arrival of a promising new director.
The bottom line: Powerful