The past lives referred to in writer/director Celine Song’s emotionally complex and delicate debut feature, “Past Lives,” are not only the Buddhist concept of previous lifetimes but also the different stages we pass through in the course of living our life. It’s a bittersweet story of a childhood love resurfacing later in life only to find the original feelings intact but everything else around them changed.
Drawing on her own experience of leaving Korea with her family when she was 12 years old and later immigrating to New York where she became a playwright, Song captures the inevitable losses and gains of getting older. Her immigrant past heightens the dislocation but the heartbreak of moving through this life is universal. Everyone has had a past life.
The opening of the film, which Song returns to at the end, finds three disparate individuals sitting at a bar—a youngish Korean woman, a good looking Korean man about the same age, and a scruffy white guy. In a voiceover, we hear someone at the other end of the bar speculating on what the connection is between these unlikely companions. Song reveals who they are and where they’ve come from in the three chapters of the film.
Na Young and Hae Sung are classmates with a special bond that happens maybe once in childhood, if you’re lucky. Na Young is going to be a writer and win a Nobel Prize and probably marry Hae Sung. But the friendship ends abruptly when Na Young’s filmmaker father and artist mother decide to move the family to Toronto. Na Young becomes Nora and life haltingly goes on.
And then 12 years later, out of the past, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) tracts down Nora (Greta Lee) in New York. They text and video chat and rekindle their connection. As the Leonard Cohen song that her parents played says, “Walk me to the corner, our steps will always rhyme.”
Though they are still close and the window to their feelings opens again for a brief moment, the pull of the future is stronger than the past. They both have things to accomplish; he can’t come to New York, and she can’t go to Korea. And so they stop talking and the distance between them grows as life takes over.
Nora meets Arthur (John Magaro) at a writers’ colony and eventually they wind up together. Call it fate, providence, or as the Koreans say, Im-Yun, lives that are destined to cross—now, in the future, or in past.
Another 12 years pass. On a lovely summer day in New York, Nora and Arthur wait to cross a street from opposite corners. They meet in the middle of the road and exchange a tender kiss. It’s an achingly sweet and real moment etched in soft, saturated colors by cinematographer Shabier Kirchner. For anyone who has been in love in New York in the summertime, this is it.
Nora and Arthur live in a cramped East Village flat and their marriage is rough around the edges, but they care for each other in the present. And then, after all this time, Hae Sung comes in New York for a vacation, but it is soon clear that he has come to see Nora. They meet in Central Park in a scene that recreates one of the great days from their youth playing in a sculpture garden.
The vectors, the Im-Yun, if you will, of Nora’s life intersect. Sitting in front of a merry-go-round with Hae Sung, the ups and downs, the endless motion, the changes and circles suggest the path of her life. As she tellingly remarks to Arthur, when she is with Hae Sung she feels so non-Korean, and somehow more Korean.
All of Nora’s experiences have been leading to this point, and in the climatic scene the trio is back at the bar, where the film began, in an uneasy conjoining of their histories. Arthur fears his wife is in love with Hae Sung; Hae Sung is in love with who Nora was to him; and Nora is still sorting out her feelings. But “Past Lives” is not a melodramatic love triangle. It is far more complicated and deeper. It’s the weight of who we were on who we’ve become and who we want to be.
To a large degree, what gives the film multiple layers is the performance of the cast. Lee, often shot in close-ups, is a radiant presence, life bursting from her face in a rash of emotions. She is just someone you want to look at to see what she’s feeling. Given his role as someone who is searching and gaining confidence in the course of the film, Yoo gives a more tentative performance, but he is authentic and appealing in his own way. And Magaro, as a person who is growing into his identity as a husband and an artist, creates someone who is an equal partner for Nora.
Too often characters in movies are who they are; they don’t change. It’s a tribute to Song’s crisp and literate script that these are people alive in the moment and in the act of becoming based on where they’ve come from. They feel like people you may know, or people you may have known in a past life.