Here’s a film that lets a few people consider the alternate paths their lives could have taken without needing to be showy about it. There’s no Sliding Doors gimmick in place with Celine Song’s debut feature, Past Lives. No tricks are deployed to add some sort of stylish hook. Instead, this is a focused meditation on people and relationships that grow and evolve over time, even when presented with an opportunity to ask, “What if.” The results are pretty good, as this is a well-acted, well-told story, with sneakily impressive filmmaking to further emphasize the strength of this narrative.
Nora and Hae Sung were two very close childhood friends, only to be separated once Nora’s family emigrated from South Korea. Twelve years later, the two reconnect over Skype, only for those conversations to reach a standstill. Another twelve years pass, and Nora (played as an adult by Greta Lee) is now married to Arthur (John Magaro). Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) has decided to take a trip to New York for a brief period with the intention of spending time with Nora. During this fateful moment, the two confront where they left things and what they’ve come to understand about their lives since.
Given this film’s subtlety and quiet nature, I think it’s important to highlight what great work has been done in the direction and cinematography to call attention to details without hammering them over the viewer. Song’s efforts here never become less intimate in how these three principal characters address each other. The film is not beyond moments of humor or awkward comedy, but as a romantic drama, this film has plenty of room to breathe, even as it pushes along through various scenes to ratchet up some form of tension.
In saying this, however, the film is smart enough to push away from clichéd actions. Sure, being an indie drama from A24, even the notion of not being a mainstream studio film still means one can narrow down the options as far as where Past Lives is headed, but this is not a film about twists or reveals either. The intelligent choices this movie makes are how it can have these characters acknowledge the predicament that has presented itself and still act like mature individuals who needn’t act on wild impulses to create certain outcomes. And this certainly isn’t a film featuring antagonists. Instead, this is a well-observed story featuring vulnerable people.
Conveying that even further is the visual language of the film. Shot by Shabier Kirchner (Small Axe), many distinct choices are made throughout Past Lives to communicate the sense of space shared by characters at any given moment and what the film wants to draw the viewer toward. What is just as important is what is being left out of the frame. Watching two people reunite means closing the rest of the world around them off, which is impressive for a film set in heavily populated areas of New York. Even more telling is a dinner scene featuring all three characters and how the camera manages to shift the focus in a way that leaves one-third of that party out.
There are deeper choices made as well. With two people separated by circumstances surrounding the decision of parents to head to America, it’s a nice touch to have Nora and Hae Sung on a boat, addressing how things shifted as they float past the Statue of Liberty that sits in front of them from their perspective. Literal diverging paths are frequently seen as well, emphasizing points in which the lives of these characters could take a significant shift.
With a film like this, one expects the performances to be pretty great, and it’s true. There are only three characters to be concerned with, and they deliver what’s required and more (though the young actors portraying Nora and Hae Sung as kinds are solid too). Lee, in particular, has to travel between worlds, speaking both English and Korean, holding onto expressions that speak in different ways about what’s going on in her head at various moments.
The men have their work cut out for them as well. Yoo’s choices to lean into a sense of innocence registers as both authentic as well as a possible way to gain sympathy without feeling nefarious in intention. Despite his character being married and in love with Nora, Magaro knows how to play up feeling like a third wheel. Having the language barrier further serve as a test of strength (both are somewhat familiar with the other’s native tongue) also adds to the purposefully knotty tension between them.
As a character study, Past Lives is pitch-perfect in the ways it wants to explore a slice of life regarding people who have headed down a path just long enough to know it can’t necessarily change all of a sudden but can project their thoughts on that possibility. Even as the film somewhat drifts into an ending, the work here is pretty terrific all around. That speaks to the assured nature of all involved, which at least makes it clear that the process of assembling this film fell down the right path.