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  • Writer's pictureBen Pivoz

Past Lives

Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) and Nora (Greta Lee) reunite after many years apart in Past Lives (Distributed by A24)

Past Lives is a lovely, poetic rumination on memory, fate and choice. It is about a man and a woman, close as children, who separate and then reunite as adults, with their lives on very different trajectories. What if she had stayed? What if he had gone to her? Would they have ended up together? Would they still be the people they have become if life had given them a different path? These are the questions they ask, motivating the conversations they have. It makes for a captivating and beautiful experience.

Na Young and Hae Sung were childhood friends in Korea, maybe on the verge of being more than friends. Then, when they were twelve, her family immigrated to North America. Twelve years later, she has moved to New York City, changed her name to Nora and become a writer. He is a student living with his parents in Seoul. They reconnect via Facebook, bringing the past into the present and causing them to reflect on what could be/have been.

Past Lives (99 minutes, without the end credits) is so enthralling because it ponders these concepts in two ways. Hae Sung is curious about how things could have changed. He is truly fascinated by the what ifs, seemingly having kept this girl in his mind for all these years. Nora, on the other hand, is pragmatic. “This is my life now.” The answers to these questions are kind of interesting, though irrelevant, to her. This is the journey life has taken her on. She has no regrets. Maybe there is another life where they could have grown together, but that is not this one. He wants things to have been different. She is just happy to see him again.

The movie is full of these conversations, treating them with honesty. This is writer/director Celine Song’s first time at both and it is genuinely incredible how assured, focused and thoughtful her debut is. This is deep, complex, philosophical subject matter and she handles it so gently and respectfully.

Nora with her husband, Arthur (John Magaro)

It is one thing to explore this through these two people rediscovering a strong connection, yet what sets Past Lives apart is the way Song deals with Nora’s husband, Arthur. He is also a writer, with many of the same likes as her. Plus, he lives in New York, as opposed to being on the other side of the world. If she left Hae Sung due to circumstance, is Nora only with Arthur due to convenient circumstance? Or is their relationship fate? There are so many stories where Arthur would be the obstacle standing in the way of true love (he even jokes about that at one point). The scenes where he and Nora discuss Hae Sung are so sensitively written that it brings this to an entirely new level.

The performances are also very good. Teo Yoo is hopeful, almost childlike, as Hae Sung. Na Young has occupied such a large space in his imagination since the moment she left Korea that it is impossible for adult her to match it. The way Teo Yoo shows Hae Sung meeting Nora, seeing her, and replacing Na Young with her is at once heartwarming and heartbreaking.

John Magaro is the movie’s secret weapon as Arthur. In an odd way, he is a lot like Hae Sung, just on the opposite side of the equation. The understanding he has for his wife’s situation is so trusting that it shines a light on the immaturity of a lot of so-called adult movies.

Greta Lee is absolutely fantastic as Nora. The way she smiles at Hae Sung before gazing thoughtfully into the distance speaks volumes. The look on her face as she waits for Hae Sung to answer her Skype call after not having seen each other since they were kids is remarkable. A writer/director has to be able to trust their performers to make their ideas tangible on screen, especially when the ideas can be as theoretical as these are. Greta Lee knocks it out of the park.

Past Lives is not about romance or even love. Those are beside the point. It is about two people who once thought they would always be together looking at how their lives turned out and wondering if there is a world where that could have happened. In a way, it is the multiverse of the heart. Sometimes, ideas being tossed back and forth can be as exciting as any action scene. That is the case here. This is Celine Song’s first effort and she takes no wrong steps. What a wonderful movie.

5 out of 5

Cast: Greta Lee as Nora

Teo Yoo as Hae Sung

John Magaro as Arthur

Written and Directed by Celine Song

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