Celine Song's 'Past Lives' is a film about nice people in a tricky situation

Teo Yoo and Greta Lee star in "Past Lives." (Courtesy of A24)
Teo Yoo and Greta Lee star in "Past Lives." (Courtesy of A24)

As you get older, it’s hard not to wonder about how things might have been. Roads not taken and the ones who got away are fertile fodder for lonely, late-night contemplation. Like Willie Nelson says, “That’s what makes the jukebox play.” I have a pet theory that the recent spate of multiverse stories, not just in the superhero realm but also last year’s Best Picture winner, speak to a collective fascination with those fulcrum moments in our lives, the pivot points where everything changed, for better and worse.

Writer-director Celine Song’s “Past Lives'' explores similar sentiments on a far less fantastical scale. It’s a delicate wisp of a story told with quiet confidence, gradually gathering an overwhelming emotional force. Deceptively simple, it begins in South Korea with childhood sweethearts Na Young and Hae Sung, who are allowed a single, chaperoned playdate in the park before her family emigrates to Canada. Na Young’s filmmaker father asks her to choose a new Western name. While listening to Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” (the only instance of Song laying it on a little thick), she picks Nora. Then she and a heartbroken Hae Sung go their separate ways.

Until 12 years later, when he finds her on this newfangled thing called Facebook. Now played by Greta Lee, Nora’s a grad student living in New York City. Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) is still in South Korea, doing his mandatory military service. Before long, they’re screwing up their sleep schedules with long Skype conversations from the other side of the world. More than any other movie I’ve seen, “Past Lives” captures what it felt like during that heady period about 15 years ago when everyone you assumed you’d never see nor hear from again was suddenly right there and available online, a generational rupture I’m not sure can really be understood by those who grew up with constant connectivity as a given. (Sit back and let grandpa here tell you how much long-distance phone calls used to cost.)

Greta Lee in "Past Lives." (Courtesy of A24)
Greta Lee in "Past Lives." (Courtesy of A24)

For Hae Sung, this is a dream come true. For Nora, it’s a distraction. She reluctantly pulls the plug, with the sad understanding that there’s no future for this relationship, and besides, she didn’t come all the way to New York City to pine for a boyfriend in the old country. It’s not like Hae Sung is coming to America anytime soon.

He gets here, eventually. But not for another 12 years. By that time, Nora’s a successful playwright happily married to a hipster novelist named Arthur (John Magaro) and living the kind of bohemian East Village life I didn’t think artists could afford anymore. The majority of the movie chronicles Hae Sung’s two days in New York and all the careful ways these three characters try to be mindful of one another’s feelings in an increasingly awkward situation. Despite his claims of being in town for tourism, Hae Sung has clearly flown 13 hours because he’s still in love with Nora. But is he in love with her, or is he in love with an idea of her that he’s been building up in his head for all these years? And what is it that draws her to him, this feeling of connection to a life and a place she left behind so long ago?

“I feel less Korean when I’m with him,” she confides to her husband, explaining how Hae Sung’s formality reveals to her how American she’s become over the years. Winningly played by Magaro — so wonderful as the doomed cook in Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” — Arthur is a bit flummoxed by the whole scenario but has no reason not to trust his wife. He’s a decent, upstanding guy who still can’t help but be a little insecure about a side of Nora’s life he’ll never know. He points out that when she talks in her sleep, she speaks Korean. His wife dreams in a language he doesn’t understand.

“Past Lives” could easily have been the stuff of turgid melodrama. Arthur even does a slightly too self-aware riff about how in the romance novel version of this story, he’d be the bad white boyfriend standing in the way of true love. You keep worrying that the screenplay will resort to some dumb misunderstanding or try to gin up the stakes with one of them doing something stupid and ugly. But this is a movie about nice people in a tricky situation doing their best to be honest and kind, which is somehow so much more suspenseful than any hypothetical bodice-ripper.

It’s a tremendously assured directorial debut from Song, a playwright whose acclaimed “Endlings” premiered at the American Repertory Theatre in 2019. She and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner are especially attentive as to where they place these wonderful actors within the frame, communicating scene dynamics through the characters’ relationships to their surroundings. Interestingly, “Past Lives” was one of the only movies to premiere at Sundance this past January without being made available on the festival’s virtual platform. Distributor A24 wisely understood that the film’s hushed nuances weren’t meant to be experienced for the first time on a critic’s laptop while they’re checking Twitter. (You’d be amazed by how brazen some of them are about this.)

Conventional wisdom says that movie theaters are for noisy spectacle pictures, and quiet dramas like “Past Lives” are stuff you can wait to stream. But films like this that are so alert to pauses and the flutter of emotions across faces cast their own kind of spell, one that’s near-impossible to conjure at home. We get up close to these characters and come to care about them deeply, hoping that maybe this time, they’ll find a better way to say goodbye.

“Past Lives” is now playing at AMC Boston Common and Kendall Square Cinema.


Sean Burns Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.



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