The debut feature from Korean-Canadian playwright Celine Song tells the story of Nora (Greta Lee), a writer from South Korea whose parents immigrated to Canada when she was just twelve. The move separates her from her culture and from her would-be childhood sweetheart Hae Sung (Teo Yoo). A dozen years later, they find each other on Facebook and rekindle their friendship via the new technology of Skype and a dial-up modem, until Nora chooses to sever the connection again. Another dozen years pass before these two meet again, this time in New York City, where Nora now lives with her Jewish-American husband Arthur (John Magaro), also a writer. The film spends a fair amount of time in each of the three periods of this romantic drama, but the first two chapters set the stage for the final one.
Drawing largely on her own life experience, Song's film explores themes both timeless the way fate and circumstance affect the course of our lives, how the passage of time affects the way we feel about past choices, how we view destiny, the roads not taken and the lives not led and timely the way young immigrants consciously and unconsciously embrace and reject their native culture, how communication technology changes the way we perceive distance, how interracial relationships are viewed through contemporary political lenses.
It's a delicate and wistful film, free from any trace of melodrama. All three characters, Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur, are pragmatic individuals, especially Nora, and they pursue these interpersonal connections without fear of making themselves vulnerable to what would seem inevitable hurt or disappointment. The filmmaking is as careful and sensitive as the protagonists. The movie could have easily fallen into the "aspirational" storytelling style popular with so many of Song's generation. In that approach, fictional characters behave in such an exemplary fashion they fail to come off as credibly human, and the stories lack any real dramatic tension. But this simple tale explores complex feelings and behaviors that are tenable and relatable to anyone who has lived long enough to experience a longing to connect with a person they knew in their youth and, indeed, with the person they were in their youth. Thus Past Lives is a welcome movie made for the adult demographic that has all but abandoned the cinema (and that the cinema has almost forgotten).
When I came out of the theater at the film festival where I saw this, a friend in the lobby said, "Now that's an 'Ian film', right?" meaning that Past Lives plays like a kind of drawn-out version of my favorite sub-genre, the "brief encounter picture." But this movie is the inverse of that conceit. Instead of a chance meeting between two strangers that has a profound, long-term effect on both, it is about an arranged meeting between two people with a pre-existing intimacy that feels like it comes from a previous life. Folks like me who are drawn to the brief encounter narrative are somewhat opposite of those who dwell on "the road not taken." We tend to focus on where our choices have currently placed us, not on the paths we didn't choose. That sentiment also describes Nora, a character firmly planted in the here and now. She is not someone who spends much time thinking about how green that grass might be on the other side of the fence. Yet Nora's forward-looking perspective makes the fact that this is an immigrant story so significant.
Even though a fork in the road is a central image in this picture, Nora doesn't view the decision to take one road vs another as a choice. It was her parent's idea to uproot the family from Korea. Her choices came afterwards, around the myriad ways she adapted and assimilated to her new home. Still, the fact that Hae Sung reappears in her life presents her with fresh choices that cause her to revisit decisions she's made in the past. As someone who has rekindled relationships with people from my own past—people I was in love with or shared a strong bond with—I also felt a kinship with Hae Sung. The way he comports himself on his visit to the States, ostensibly for a vacation but, in truth, for the sole purpose of seeing Nora again, felt spot on.
The craft on display supports Song's tender writing, especially the cinematography by Shabier Kirchner. He composes each shot of this still, quiet picture centering on words spoken and feelings left unexpressed, in ways that never distract yet constantly keep the frame interesting. And composers Christopher Bear and Daniel Rosen of the Brooklyn-based band Grizzly Bear underscore each distinctive section of the story, which occurs at twelve-year intervals. Their work emphasizes the age and attitudes of the characters at each stage. At a time in cinema where large-scale studio output has become more and more homogenous in an attempt to reach the greatest possible international audience, Past Lives is yet another indie example of how autobiographical specificity can yield far more universal resonance than movies that try to provide "something for everyone."
Song's poignant debut about a married immigrant reconnecting with a man from her childhood strikes many vibrant chords and demonstrates how autobiographical specificity can yield universal resonance.