Writer-director Celine Song’s debut feature, Past Lives, is essentially a two-hander, even if its opening frame contains three people. What’s more, despite chronicling a journey that takes place over 24 years and spans from Seoul to New York City—with stops in between—the film never loses sight of this personal scope. As a result, the film’s erotic spark, which is present right from the start too, is able to travel toward an unexpected and satisfying conclusion.
One half of the equation in Past Lives is Nora (Greta Lee), whose family elects to leave South Korea when she is 12 years old. This decision abruptly ends her friendship—and young sweetheart relationship—with the film’s other half, Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). Jumping ahead in neat 12-year increments, we regard first the online reconnection of this pair, and then, at long last, their in-person meeting. Song’s film is, in one sense, just as simple as that—however, in what’s said and not, it feels far more complicated. That’s partly due to the introduction of Arthur (John Magaro), but also because of the tantalizing swirl of time and distance that lands us with these two people (plus one) in various charged moments along the way. Led by a stunning performance (in every sense) by Lee, the combination of childhood dislocation and buried passion fills the film’s modest action with meaning and intensity. Yes, this film is a two-hander, a small personal drama, yet its emotions match the scale of its global reach.
While steamed in “will-they-or-won’t-they” energy, Past Lives also evolves into something else. If you’ve ever felt like there was a different life ahead or behind you, one that could have been yours, Song’s narrative has an alluring power. Paired with its romanticism, there is a straightforward force to her film, one that regards a specific line of life-making decisions to note just how mysterious any one person can be. Even if something didn’t happen, it can be hard to forget.