Past Lives starring Greta Lee and Teo Yoo
Past Lives is a gift in story telling
Past Lives is a deep, meditative study tracking the lives of two childhood friends from Seoul and the junctures where they reunite, to unexpected results.
In an era of celluloid where films can be long, loud and lacking in heart, Past Lives offers a reprieve as a slow-burn story that focuses on “in-yeon”, the concept of reincarnation in Korean culture. As explained by main character Nora (Greta Lee), it takes 8000 layers of in-yeon for people to get together in one lifetime.
Which is why watching the 24-year trajectory of Nora and her childhood friend Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) both heart wrenching and frustrating.
Past lives follows two eras
The two parts as 12-year-olds in Seoul in the late 80s when Nora’s family immigrate to Canada, leaving Hae Sung palpably sorrowful by Nora’s underwhelming goodbye.
Fast-forward 12 years and their lives couldn’t be more different. Nora has moved to New York and is studying to be a playwright while Hae Sung is going through the motions of being a young Korean man, undertaking his compulsory military service and living with his parents.
By chance, Nora discovers – via her filmmaker father’s Facebook page – that Hae Sung has enquired about her. Cue what will be familiar to anyone over the age of 40 – the unmistakable ringtone and excruciating unreliability of Skype calls. These at first awkward chats quickly lead to their friendship blossoming and the pair pick up from where they left off.
Of course, any romantic cynics know this reconnection at this time is as stable as a Skype call in 2012, and after a number of failed attempts to meet in person, either New York or Seoul, Nora pulls the pin on the friendship and severs contact. Leaving Hae Sung once again almost breathless with despair.
While it sounds like a well-trodden path, first time director Celia Song ensures it’s anything but, with mesmerising visual motifs and camera framing that gently pauses the narrative, giving us time to feel into each scene, like a sigh.
The third “act” (Song is an accomplished playwright and the structure of Past Lives reflects this) is another 12 years on, when Nora and Hae Sung are in their mid-30s. She is now married to New York writer Arthur (played with pitch perfect anguish by John Magaro) while Hae Sung is yet to commit to his latest girlfriend and is still ensconced in the same Seoul scene, he was a decade earlier.
They reunite when he visits present day New York under the guise of a work trip, and this is where the film picks up pace and the sparse dialogue of the previous acts, becomes more laden – and loaded.
The depth of feelings – and maybe in-yeon – of Nora and Hae Sung when they meet in person for the first time since 12-year-olds is an immense, and joyful, moment. During the week-long visit, Nora begins to question her life-choices and realises how separated she has become from her Korean upbringing.
Delicious moments in Past Lives
Song creates some deliciously awkward moments which are disparate from the rest of the film. When Hae Song and Arthur meet in the couple’s tiny Manhattan apartment, their attempts to exchange pleasantries in each other’s language is cringeworthy – as it should be. Similarly, the protracted bar scene where Arthur is forced to sit while his wife and her childhood friend converse animatedly in Korean makes you want in your seat but not want to miss a moment.
The tension continues to grow and leaves us guessing until the final frame, which is exquisite in its simplicity and intimacy.
Song is a gifted storyteller and the performances by the three actors – particularly Lee and Magaro – makes Past Lives worth seeing.